San Mateo County’s crime lab has picked up some of the San Francisco lab’s caseload after that lab was shuttered in March, but the public can rest assured it is not picking up any of its northern neighbor’s slack habits in the process.
The county crime lab has been contracted by San Francisco to process seven drug cases a day, which works out to about seven extra hours of work a day for the lab’s three full-time criminalists and one half-time criminalist.
The work is being done entirely using overtime and hasn’t slowed the processing of San Mateo County cases, lab director Jim Granucci said.
The San Francisco lab was closed March 9 after a lab employee admitted to swiping drug evidence. The case ground The City’s criminal justice system to a standstill, forcing prosecutors to dismiss or delay hundreds of drug cases.
A resulting audit by the California Attorney General’s Office harshly criticized the lab for requiring its employees to shoulder unmanageable workloads, not prioritizing good laboratory practices and creating a “fertile environment” for tampering with evidence, as described by San Francisco police Chief George Gascón.
After the lab was shut down, The City hired San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda counties to test or retest many of its cases.
San Mateo County Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said that after the San Francisco crime lab came under scrutiny, his lab had a conference with prosecutors to discuss lab practices.
“They run a pretty tight operation out there,” he said. “We haven’t had any delays or any of the problems that cropped up last year and sent warning signs to [San Francisco’s] prosecutors. There’s been nothing like that down here.”
Granucci said San Mateo County’s lab has procedures in place to ensure it doesn’t go down the road San Francisco’s lab did.
“I’m comfortable with the checks and balances we have in place within our lab,” he said. “But I think the situation in San Francisco shows that anytime you have an employee who goes rogue or goes outside the boundaries, it’s problematic.”
Unlike what was happening in San Francisco, Granucci said his lab carefully maintains the chain of custody of evidence, and employees have the ability to secure their evidence.
He said his lab conducts about 3,000 tests per year, or about 700 cases per staff member.
“Forensic laboratories, pardon the pun, are always going to be under the microscope, because of the nature of their work,” he said. “They come under close scrutiny by the courts, by the defense and by the prosecution.”
Picking up the load
With the San Francisco crime lab temporarily shut down, San Mateo County is handling some of the extra work for its northern neighbor.
3.5: Criminalists at San Mateo County lab
7: San Francisco cases per day county handles
3,000: Cases per year handled by county lab
3: Counties handling San Francisco cases (San Mateo, Alameda, Santa Clara)