HPD Wants Its Crime Scene Unit Back. Crime Lab's Civilian Leadership Says No.

The Houston Forensic Science Center admits that hiring a call center to dispatch the Houston Police Department's Crime Scene Unit to homicides and officer-involved shootings was not the best idea.

The crime scene unit management — which, even though it’s made up of civilians, still supervises HPD’s Crime Scene Unit — attempted to improve record-keeping within the crime scene unit by instructing the answering service to keep detailed call logs. But it didn't necessarily go as planned. On one occasion, the call center put a homicide detective on hold for more than an hour during an investigation, the forensic science center's board director, Nicole Casarez, said. Other times, the call center dialed disconnected numbers and could not reach the right person.

“That was not popular,” Casarez said. “Things went awry, and the call center was no longer used.”

Yet even though the answering service is no more, the flop led HPD to ask the Houston Forensic Science Center to relinquish jurisdiction of the crime scene unit and return it to HPD in May. It’s yet another example of the growing pains that HPD and the forensic science center have been undergoing ever since the center took over leadership of the crime lab in April 2014, after years of mistakes in the former HPD-run crime lab. Throughout the 2000s, the lab racked up a backlog of roughly 6,600 untested rape kits, and the Harris County District Attorney's Office is now dealing with nearly 300 wrongful drug convictions since 2004 because innocent people, unwilling to wait months or years for the crime lab to finish testing the non-drugs, pleaded guilty to get out of jail. Some technicians were even accused of lying.

To say the least, the team of forensic science experts from around the country who took over the lab looked for any and all opportunities for improvement. The new independent management came in with a quality-assurance standard that is rivaled by few labs in the country — but giving the HPD crime scene officers new civilian bosses has created rifts, because police aren't used to being told what to do by anyone other than a higher-ranking officer.

And the officers in the Homicide Division certainly were not used to having to dial up an independent, civilian-run call center in order to summon the crime scene unit.

“In the past, we had a problem with rape kits; we had a problem with processing of evidence — but we didn't have any problem with CSU,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “What was the reason for solving a problem when there wasn’t one? It's a layer of bureaucracy that's completely unnecessary.”

The proposal to return the crime scene unit to HPD — which is not officially on the table until Mayor Sylvester Turner's own audit of the crime lab is completed in September — comes in light of a recent external audit of the unit that found several deficiencies. Missteps included a lack of written documentation and over-reliance on photographs; stopping short of fully investigating scenes because a homicide detective felt the crime scene unit had done “enough”; and writing that something “makes sense” because it matched the account of an officer who fired his gun.

Casarez said the reason they hired the call center in the first place was because HPD also lacked any real system for summoning the crime scene units: The Homicide Division would simply call up the a unit on a cellphone, meaning there was no way to track which unit received the most calls or what their response time was, Casarez said. The forensic science center thought that, if it began funneling the calls through one central location, the calls would be tracked. It would also eliminate even the slightest possibility that, during an officer-involved shooting, a homicide detective could simply choose which crime scene officers he wanted to come investigate, making room for the perception of bias, Casarez said.

Still, following those call-center screw-ups, Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo and Hunt told Casarez at a meeting in May that they were deeply concerned about crime scene unit response times, saying it would be more effective without the forensic science center's intervention. Hunt told the Press last week he also had been finding that a system in which officers not only had to answer to HPD sergeants, but also to forensic science center management, only created confusion at crime scenes.

“It simply makes complete sense for them to be under Homicide Division’s [jurisdiction],” he said. “It’s a no-brainer.”

To the lab’s Chief Operating Officer Dr. Peter Stout, however, it’s anything but black and white. Stout said that, while the crime scene units may not be guilty of any systemic errors, if the forensic science center was to lose jurisdiction, Stout does not have faith HPD would be able to keep up with the rapidly evolving scientific best practices for evidence collection. The crime scene unit is unaccredited, unlike most of the other divisions within the lab, which means that plenty more changes lie ahead for the unit, Stout said.
Since DNA technology is becoming more sensitive and collection requires more advanced training, Stout said the police department's lack of documentation for who has access to crime scenes must change.

Just this month, the crime lab management had to remove one HPD officer from casework for mishandling firearm evidence at the scene of an officer-involved shooting — requiring him to undergo more training before he could return to the crime scene unit, according to corrective action documents on the forensic science center's website. Even more illustrative of the rather tenuous relationship between HPD and the civilian crime lab management is the fact that two officers were permanently transferred out of the crime lab and reassigned within HPD after they wrote critical and, well, mean Facebook posts about the forensic science center management, a source familiar with the incident told us.

Stout said he feels for the officers, whom he said are “sandwiched between two different hierarchies." But still, he didn’t hesitate when asked whether the crime scene unit's strides toward accreditation would be compromised if HPD got the lab back. While Hunt may be concerned about response times, Stout said that’s only half the picture (and provided data showing that response times seem to be on par, anyway).

“The science starts in the field,” Stout said. “If evidence doesn’t come out of the field correctly and in a quality fashion, it doesn’t matter how good the laboratory runs. It’s still going to be a problem for the case. So how do we do collect evidence in such a fashion in which, one, you are indeed getting quality evidence out of the field, but also so that everybody involved trusts and believes that the evidence is coming out of the field effectively?”

To Stout, it doesn’t start with giving the crime lab back to HPD.

Mayor Turner’s task force is expected to have an update on its crime lab audit at the forensic science center's September 9 board meeting.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn