Reducing the DNA backlog

     Frustrated with the DNA backlog and turnaround time at its state laboratory, the sheriff's office in Marion County, Florida, sought funding and personnel to open its own DNA lab, but National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) Executive Director Kevin Lothridge advised against it.

     The upfront costs of a DNA laboratory (nearly $5 million) may not seem like much in some respects, Lothridge explains, but the care and maintenance these labs are very expensive long-term.

     Common forensic services such as latent print examination and crime scene investigation are found in many law enforcement agencies. However, providing DNA analysis is far more challenging based on the complexities of the technologies used, he says.

     Marion County Sheriff Ed Dean and Lt. Bill Sowder discussed with Lothridge how the sheriff's office could efficiently handle evidence to provide the most timely and necessary service. As a result of their decisions, the sheriff's office decided not to build a full DNA laboratory and perform DNA analysis, but to take on what is typically the most labor-intensive and backlog-causing process in a DNA laboratory: the screening phase. In January 2007 the sheriff's office began constructing the first stand-alone DNA screening lab.

     Using its existing screening program for crime laboratories, the NFSTC worked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and the Marion County Sheriff's Office to create a model, or pilot, program in which local agencies screen items for biological evidentiary value before sending them to one of FDLE's six regional biology laboratories that perform DNA analysis. The program was first implemented in Marion County and has since been employed by the Seminole County Sheriff's Office as well.

     Screening or prescreening potential evidence before the items are sent to the crime laboratory is one of 10 FDLE initiatives intended to eliminate or lessen its DNA backlog, which hit a high of 4,815 pending cases in November 2006. "We were getting more evidence than we could possibly handle in any kind of timely manner, and we knew agencies were not satisfied with the time it was taking to get answers back to them," says FDLE Assistant Commissioner Ken Tucker.

     Mutual frustration prompted the FDLE to reevaluate the way it was doing business. To come up with its 10-point forensic science plan last year (See "A 10-point strategy" at right), the FDLE met with local (including county) agencies, sought their input and engaged them to be part of the solution by prescreening evidence.

Five items or fewer

     No. 1 on the list of new initiatives announced last year is a set of case acceptance guidelines (used in four forensic disciplines: biology, firearms, drug chemistry and latent prints) to lessen the number of items coming into FDLE. One of the guidelines requires local agencies (those best suited to prioritize their potential evidence) to decide which items are most valuable and to initially submit no more than five. Depending on what is found and not found, additional items may be accepted later. Also, the five-item limit does not include reference samples. Tucker says limiting the number of submissions is a form of prescreening because historically agencies collected everything they could and sent items in bulk. For example, in a single case, FDLE might receive 100 or even hundreds of items.

     With a limitless number of submissions, the volume of potential evidence coming in to FDLE was so large that it was difficult for it to establish priorities. Limiting the number of submissions allows FDLE forensic analysts to work more cases and provide more agencies and investigators with information that may help them with their cases in a more timely fashion.

No more duplication of effort

     Training local law enforcement agencies to prescreen potential DNA evidence, as Marion and Seminole counties are doing, is the second point in FDLE's plan. Nationwide, many agencies are doing presumptive tests — but they aren't informing their state crime laboratory. When agencies do share presumptive test results with state crime labs, Lothridge says the lab often retests the sample. However, with proper training and standards in place, he says a state laboratory would not need to repeat these presumptive tests. The Marion County and Seminole County sheriff's offices perform both presumptive and confirmatory testing for blood and semen, and Marion County also screens for saliva. FDLE does not re-screen items from those tests. Items that are not found to have biological material in the screening process are not sent to FDLE.

The benefits — so far

     Biology Section Crime Lab Analyst Supervisor Marcella Scott of FDLE's Jacksonville Regional Crime Laboratory works closely with the Marion County Sheriff's Office. The bottom line is that when local agencies take on the time-consuming task of prescreening evidence, she says, "We don't have to."

     Samples needing DNA testing have been identified and isolated and go straight into DNA testing. Providing only the necessary, probative samples helps streamline the DNA submission process. Exactly how much of an impact prescreening has made in terms of specific numbers of cases or items has not yet been determined in part because FDLE has a new lab management program — Seminole County just opened its laboratory in December 2007 and Marion County opened its lab a little over a year ago. As more data is collected, FDLE hopes to show the impact that the county screening programs are having on the state. Tucker points out that any backlog reduction FDLE has experienced cannot be credited only to the prescreening program, but rather to the prescreening in combination with other points of the overall forensic services plan.

     At the end of December, the number of pending cases needing DNA analysis by FDLE was 2,290, and the average turnaround time improved from 200 to 100 days in some labs, he says. With interagency communication and prioritization, some cases are turned around in one, two or three days, he adds.

     Tracking screening time separately from analysis time, Marion County screens its potential evidence items in three days and gets them back from FDLE in 52 or 53 days on average, Sowder reports.

     When the Seminole County Sheriff's Office previously submitted DNA to FDLE, the turnaround time was one year to 18 months. By doing their own screening and meeting FDLE protocol and standards, Seminole County Sheriff's Office Laboratory Director Jennie Ahern says the sheriff's office received the first cases they screened back from FDLE in two months.

     The biggest benefit Nancy Rathman Davis, who is the biology unit crime lab analyst supervisor in FDLE's Orlando Regional Crime Laboratory, has observed working with Seminole County is that the line of communication between agencies has opened up.

     Even though the communication has always been there, Orlando Regional Crime Laboratory Director James McNamara says working together has really improved the communication, helping local agencies feel part of the process and part of the team.

     Davis adds, "When we're given more information about the cases, we can make more efficient judgments on how to approach a case."

     At one point, when there was a backlog of about 1,000 cases at the Orlando regional laboratory, some were six or eight months old and had already been solved but no one informed the crime lab, Davis says. FDLE began contacting every agency that submitted items to see if the case was still active. "Once we did that, then they started calling us," she says.

     While Davis has long understood the pressures she faced with as many as 150 cases from 20 different agencies at the height of the backlog (now an analyst has 40 or fewer cases), she says the pilot program with Seminole County has helped her better understand the pressures facing local law enforcement — and vice versa. In Marion County, Sowder says, "Our people are more DNA-minded now when they're working crime scenes."

     Sowder, who previously worked child sex crimes, wishes he could have had DNA screening available to add credibility to a child's testimony (or confirm that something has happened when a child is too young to testify). He says he could have gotten perpetrators off the street quicker and stopped the abuse sooner. Having test results that show the presence of blood or semen at a crime scene can provide enough probable cause for an investigator to make an arrest. Or, these results could lead to a confession — before DNA analysis is even performed.

Opening a screening lab

     Looking at the benefits gained so far, other county agencies might think about setting up their own screening lab, but agencies need to be aware there's more work to setting up a screening lab than changing a sign on a door. A screening laboratory is a forensic laboratory for which there are strict requirements to prevent evidence contamination, and much of the work in setting up a lab is getting the personnel trained and ready.

     To ensure that efforts were coordinated between agencies, the first step Marion County and FDLE took was to establish a memorandum of understanding outlining the expectations required of each agency.

     FDLE worked hand in hand with the Marion County Sheriff's Office in training their three DNA screening technicians and helping them put together their lab, procedures and training manuals, says Scott.

     After training with FDLE for two weeks at the NFSTC (training was funded by the National Institute of Justice), Marion County screening technicians continued their training for five weeks at FDLE's Jacksonville Regional Crime Laboratory. When that training concluded, FDLE analysts worked with Marion County screening technicians for 13 weeks in their lab, and the DNA screening technicians finished that training with an oral board and mock trial.

     "Everything we do mimics the FDLE right down to lab procedures, equipment and paperwork," Sowder says. "They know when they get a report from us, it's just as if one of their techs did it."

     Marion County DNA screening technicians were hired specifically to examine items for biological fluids including blood, semen and saliva, (and eventually hair); to issue reports confirming their presence (which are sent to the FDLE and state attorney's office); and to collect the samples for DNA testing. The entire screening process is hands-on, with no automation. In addition to handling 12 to 15 cases per month on average, the DNA screening technicians work on about three cold cases (total) per month. Over an 18-month time span, Marion County is rescreening all of its cold cases through a $170,000 grant awarded last year.

     In Seminole County, two crime scene analysts work the crime scene, screen evidence for blood and semen in the screening lab, and issue reports just as Marion County does. Seminole County screeners also received training from the NFSTC and FDLE but worked with the FDLE's Orlando Regional Crime Laboratory, where they trained for about nine months. Their training was spread out over a longer time due to unexpected obstacles in getting their laboratory built, and the training had to fit around the screeners' responsibilities as crime scene analytics. Ahern, working with FDLE, wrote operating procedures, and the lab opened in December 2007. Since then, the lab has averaged four cases per month. Recently, Seminole County started permitting its seven police departments to submit evidence for screening.

     Both Ahern and Sowder agree a screening lab requires at least two people. An ASCLD/LAB (American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board) inspector, Ahern says having two scientists in the lab is necessary so that one can work the case and the second can review the case file to ensure the findings are accurate and do not omit critical information. Sowder adds vacations and court time also make having only one person ineffective.

     Because the screeners at the two sheriff's offices do presumptive and confirmatory testing, they must meet the same background and educational requirements (a bachelor's degree in a basic natural science) required by FDLE. While Seminole County uses crime scene analysts to staff its lab, Ahern points out that not every crime scene analyst would have the scientific background necessary to work in a laboratory.

     With tax restructuring and law enforcement budget cuts in Florida, there are agencies that want to do DNA screening but must wait. Of all the processes in the biology section, Scott points out that screening is the least expensive. Yet there are still reoccurring costs including salaries, supplies and continuing education and training.

     In setting up the Marion County lab, Sowder aimed to be frugal and succeed with a budget coming in at $235,000, which is $15,000 less than planned. The cost included converting 960 square feet of office space into a restricted-access laboratory; replacing carpet with industrial tile; setting up stainless-steel tables for easy cleaning; custom-making furniture to maximize functionality; purchasing new equipment (less than $100,000); and providing salaries and benefits for three DNA screening technicians.

The bottleneck nationwide

     If more law enforcement agencies providing forensic services from various states start screening items for DNA, Lothridge says that potential evidence doesn't need to wait on the bottleneck of the crime laboratory.

     "Nationwide, there are many more forensic service providers among the 19,000 law agencies compared to only 425 crime labs," he says. "You can see the neck gets pretty tight. If local forensic service providers can provide that timely, necessary service, we're going to be better able to stop people from doing things they shouldn't be doing before we wait for crime lab analysis."

     Before a local agency starts planning a screening lab, Ahern says it must have the full cooperation of the lab doing the analysis. Working with a local agency to train personnel and ensure proper procedures are in place can be very time consuming for a state agency.

     Yet, prescreening is helpful says McNamara, "Crime laboratories are no longer in a position to analyze all items, in all cases, all the time. If they did, they would provide no timely information on many of those cases."

     McNamara encourages other state laboratories to at least consider working with local agencies to do prescreening, which can take many forms. Local agencies can help by sending cuttings instead of whole items (a piece of fabric instead of a pair of jeans), when appropriate — and many agencies are already doing that, he says.

     "Do whatever you can to enhance your communication with the agencies that are sending you evidence," Tucker tells state agencies.

     While Florida works to reduce existing backlogs, researchers continually strive to advance DNA technology. "When we can do more analysis with the help of technology, we are given more cases to work," says Davis, who's seen the number of analysts in her lab grow from five in the 1980s to 20 today. "Instead of working only sexual assaults and homicides, we're working burglaries, car thefts, and all kinds of cases that can be solved using CODIS." Because new ways have been found for forensic analysts to work more efficiently, Davis hopes the backlog won't increase as more demands are placed on forensic analysts.

     At the Marion County Sheriff's Office, Sowder today appears less frustrated and more enthusiastic about being part of Florida's efforts to reduce this DNA backlog. He encourages other agencies to get involved, too. "If you don't," he says, "it's going to take you longer to solve crimes — or crimes will go unsolved."

     Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin and can be reached at kanable@charter.net.

A 10-point strategy

     As local law enforcement increasingly realized the power of DNA technology, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) began to see more DNA submissions from not only violent crimes but property crimes as well. In five years, submissions had increased 20 percent.

     "We realized we couldn't keep doing business the way we had been or we were just going to keep getting a bigger and bigger backlog," says FDLE Assistant Commissioner Ken Tucker. "That made it absolutely necessary that we take actions to somehow reduce what was coming in the door, prioritize better, work smarter and work more efficiently."

     Since the agency began implementing some of the points in its 10-point plan, FDLE has reduced its backlog in four disciplines (biology, drug chemistry, firearms, latent prints) by 71 percent as of January 2008.

     The most important thing FDLE did to achieve that was involve the local agencies as well as the state attorney's office and the Florida Forensic Advisory Committee in finding solutions, says Tucker.

     "We did not just sit up here and say we're going to do things the way we want to," he says.

     Key among the 10 points are outsourcing pending biology cases (but not juvenile sexual assaults or rush cases). FDLE tapped $1.1 million in federal grants for outsourcing, and then obtained $2 million from its state legislature.

     Another key point, in addition to outsourcing and prescreening by local agencies (mentioned in "Reducing the DNA backlog"), is expediting final implementation of automated forensic processing.

     FDLE 10-point forensic science plan (abridged version)

  1. Implement Case Acceptance Guidelines to manage incoming cases.
  2. Train local law enforcement agencies to perform prescreening of potential DNA evidence.
  3. Train local law enforcement agency personnel as scientists to work in FDLE laboratories. (This is not being done yet.)
  4. Contract for training of new and replacement FDLE scientists.
  5. Outsource portion of pending biology cases.
  6. Add trained FDLE scientists to increase crime laboratory capacity.
  7. Expand the role of forensic technologists.
  8. Expedite final implementation of automated forensic processing.
  9. Utilize overtime in biology, chemistry, firearms and latent print disciplines.
  10. Workload and staffing management.

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