Problem-wracked crime lab’s endless DNA tour 

It would be both ungrateful and unfair not to use some of this space to commend the San Francisco Police Department for its persistence in finally bringing the District Attorney’s Office a case that justified arresting seven suspects in the pointless August murder of a female German tourist near Union Square.

But on the downside, this newspaper was deeply disappointed to discover that 10 months after the Police Department promised to clear the crime laboratory’s embarrassing DNA-report backlog by hiring more analysts, the lab is more short-staffed than ever. Because of this delay, San Francisco spends $150,000 every month to send criminal evidence to an independent lab in Richmond.

The crime lab’s DNA unit requires 11 technicians to be fully staffed. A year ago, there were six and the staff is now four. Moreover, a high-powered DNA analyzer costing six figures when purchased in 2004 has never been used and won’t be ready to use for another year at the earliest.

The ABI Prism 3100 can analyze 16 DNA samples simultaneously; the lab’s current equipment only tests one sample at a time. Despite this, the machine just gathered dust at the lab until last summer, when the Police Commission demanded that it be activated. It has now supposedly been readied for operation but still must undergo a year of accuracy testing. Tests were delayed because the equipment needed an upgrade — costing more money — and there is no word on when it will actually begin.

Due to these problems, last year at least two cases surfaced in which suspects committed violent crimes while their DNA awaited testing for other crimes. In one case, the crime lab failed for years to test the DNA evidence in the homicide of a transgender woman, while the suspect continued raping and brutalizing other transgender women. The DNA operation hit a peak backlog of more than 500 cases. After the high-profile delays, the Police Department found money to outsource its DNA backlog — which then topped 375 cases — and promised to hire new DNA analysts so the cases could be brought back in-house.

There is no longer a backlog because about 30 cases a month are being outsourced. However, it’s unclear how quickly samples are currently being tested. The lab’s four in-house technicians each carry about 20 cases, which police officials have described as “considerably above industry standards.” Two new technicians are supposedly on the verge of being hired and apparently The City’s Department of Human Resources is allowing more hiring.

So when is the crime lab DNA unit going to be anywhere near full strength again? Accurate and timely technical analysis of physical evidence has become a vital factor in bringing criminals to justice. New police Chief Greg Suhr must make it a top priority to fix the lingering problems at the crime lab and not let its supervision and budgeting be left on the back burner any longer.

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