HPD’s Crime Lab Making Improvements But Some Backlogs Still Growing

Eight years ago Houston’s crime lab was riddled with problems that led to the shutting down of its DNA division. The lab has been in full compliance with national standards in recent years, and now it appears more improvements have been made. But as Wendy Siegle reports, unprocessed rape kits are still piling up.

There’s good news and there’s bad news. Let’s start with some good: Houston’s crime lab has significantly reduced the backlogs that have been plaguing some of its forensic divisions. For example, at the beginning of last year there were 42,000 controlled substance cases rolled over from 2009 that hadn’t been processed yet. That division received an additional 16,000 cases throughout 2010 — bringing the grand total to over 58,000 by year’s end.

“They were able to get that all the way down to just under 19,000. That is extremely significant.”

Timothy Oettmeier is the Executive Assistant Chief with the Houston Police Department. He says that the firearms division made similar progress. Its backlog was cut by fifty percent last year. But some areas are still looking grim. There are currently over 4,200 sexual assault kits sitting in a freezer untested. Oettmeier says they all need to be looked at, but that doesn’t mean they all need to be processed.

“We have to screen those cases and look at what evidence is available and whether or not it necessitates testing.”

An additional 11,700 kits are being stored in an air conditioned room of the Crime Lab. Some are over 20 years old. Oettmeir says he believes they have all been handled properly over the years. But…

“The problem is I can’t prove to you that that’s occurring because the information system that was in place all those years doesn’t provide us the information. So we’re working on that challenge, trying to figure out how we can demonstrate to the public that we don’t have an additional backlog of all of those cases.”

The lab is dealing with a growing backlog of toxicology cases, too. Oettmeir says in both the tox division and the DNA division, the demand is outpacing the capacity. Lack of manpower and resources have been cited as the most salient reasons for the unprocessed cases. Still, Council Member Melissa Noriega says at least we have a clearer picture of the lab now.

“I think we’ve made significant progress and we know where we are. And I think you’ve got to know where you are.”

The crime lab recently received a grant for over $1 million dollars. Oettmeir says the lab will be hiring ten more staff with the money to process more than half of the rape kits in the freezer. The money will also be used to outsource 320 DNA cases.