The county’s crime lab gets high marks from the civil grand jury which lauds its recent accreditation but recommends developing a way for law enforcement and prosecutors to better track evidence.
The San Mateo County Forensic Laboratory doesn’t provide regular training to local law enforcement agencies on new forensic techniques or have a secure online way for authorities to get and give up-to-date information on the state of cases under investigation, the grand jury concluded in a report released yesterday.
The jury recommends the lab develop both.
At the time of the report’s completion, communication between the lab, law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office on evidence analyses and turnaround times was done primarily through direct phone calls with Director Alex Karagianes. On occasion, the lack of “robust and updated communication” between the lab and prosecutors has “led to confusion” about processing, trial schedules and analyses delivery dates, the report states.
Between 2007 and 2010, the lab processed an annual average of 12,100 items which are tracked using an internal, lab-access-only information system. The limited access leaves law enforcement agencies and the District Attorney’s Office left to make inquiries by phone during regular business hours.
“It’s always been envisioned to have real-time communication, a way to let clients have access,” Karagianes said.
The software company that sold the lab its system is in the process of developing such a model and said it is expected “soon” although there is not a specific timeline, Karagianes said.
An unknown is if the update will be part of the lab’s current maintenance contract or require purchase. Sheriff Greg Munks is hopeful it will be free because the county serves as a beta site for the company but said he is prepared to pay for the update if necessary.
Currently, the situation is “kind of old school with phone calls and emails,” he said.
However, he and District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said the communication is much improved.
In the past — the “paper world,” as Wagstaffe deemed it — reports would get lost or misplaced and signals got crossed.
“They’ve done an excellent job of correcting that,” he said.
One outstanding feature still needed is being alerted when new reports are generated, he said.
The jury also recommended the lab offer regular or standard training on forensic techniques and crime scene investigation. Karagianes said training is offered but on a more as-needed basis for agencies and individuals rather than on a more formal schedule.
“We tend to rely on our client agencies to tell us when they need it,” Karagianes said.
Another challenge is that each agency has their own needs, he said.
The crime lab serves several jurisdictions in the county and some non-county agencies, provided services including ballistics, toxicology, fingerprint, DNA analyses and crime scene processing.
Last fiscal year, the lab received $4.21 million from the Sheriff’s Office budget and generated another $1.12 million in lab fees.
The lab director is appointed by the sheriff and oversees a staff of 31.5 full-time equivalent positions and qualified interns.
The civil grand jury last looked at the crime lab in 2006 when the recommendations included receiving independent accreditation. The lab met this goal Sept. 11, 2010 from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board. The accreditation is valid until 2015.
Previously, grand jury reports were not as glowing as the assessment issued yesterday.
“This report culminates 12 to 15 years of real hard work to overcome the prior deficiencies,” Munks said.
In October 2000, the jury found the former crime lab was seismically unsafe, did not meet health or safety codes and had inadequate plumbing and potentially unsafe electric wiring. The 75-year-old building was also infested with the Stachey-Botris mold which sickened employees. The new LEED-certified lab broke ground the following year.
Civil grand jury reports carry no legal weight but recipients are required to respond in writing within 90 days.