Would a City-County Merger Jeopardize Progress at Houston's New and Improved Crime Lab?

When the Houston Forensic Science Center took over the Houston Police Department crime lab in April 2014, it inherited some major problems. The lab was dealing with a backlog of more than 6,000 rape kits. Lab tests on drugs took months, in some cases years. Rather than languish in jail fighting their charges, some drug defendants pleaded guilty, only to be exonerated by a lab test years later. One HPD crime lab technician was even under fire for lying and botching chemical tests, potentially affecting evidence in nearly two dozen cases.

The city brought national forensic experts in from across the country to turn things around. Though police with HPD's Crime Scene Unit would still work under the Houston Forensic Science Center's new management team, the lab would be run independently of law enforcement. The new facility soon developed more rigorous checks and balances to ensure lab analysts weren't making the same mistakes that had ruined the HPD lab. “We were building systems where no systems have been in place before,” Chief Operating Officer Dr. Peter Stout said. “It was like building a plane while the plane was in the air.”

But now, just two years since the Houston Forensic Science Center started turning things around, Harris County commissioners and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner are considering merging the city and county crime labs into one operation, which isn't a new idea. A few years ago, Harris County proposed merging the labs, but asked the city to relinquish control and just pay the county for its services. But former mayor Annise Parker rejected that proposal in favor of bringing in national experts. This time, it's unclear whether officials will consider a partnership or total county takeover — neither side has put forth any specific details.

Either way, though, the nascent lab's leadership fears that major changes could jeopardize what progress has already been made. The idea of an independently run lab, separate from law enforcement, is still a relatively new idea in the field of forensic science, said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a University of Houston law professor who serves as vice chairman of the board overseeing the lab. The board and management also have a team of outside forensic experts serving as advisers, which is also uncommon, Thompson said. And at this point, many forensic science experts are looking to Houston to see what independent oversight like this may mean for the future of the field, she said.

"Houston is the model," said Thompson, who recently wrote a book examining the importance of independent labs, using Houston's turnaround as a centerpiece. "It's an example of what city crime labs should be doing. Even the thought that we should shut down this lab, that would really set back forensic science across the country."

The new crime lab management has also implemented a safeguard system, designed to check analysts' work, that is largely unprecedented around the country, board members told the Houston Press.  For tests such as toxicology and firearms, the crime lab does “blind verification” testing, which basically means that analysts are given fake tests that management already knows the answers to. That way, management can make sure analysts aren't screwing up tests or cutting any corners. In other words, managers can make sure that the mistakes that brought down the HPD crime lab won't happen again.

"I think we've seen that bad forensic science results in the conviction of innocent people and allows guilty people to go free. So getting the science right is so important," said Board Director Nicole Casarez.

On the other hand, Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, says that the lab is focusing too much on quality control and in turn is just slowing things down, creating more backlog that he says prevents police from solving crimes. Extra checks and balances and checking employees' work, he said, should come second to processing test results swiftly. In addition, he said classified HPD officers working for the crime lab are so dissatisfied with this extra work and increased scrutiny that they are constantly asking to transfer out of the crime lab; he added that “morale is extremely low” for those officers.

“We were led to believe that this [independent lab] was going to be a much more efficient system and that we would get quicker turnaround times, and we found that that's not the case,” Hunt claims. “I'm all for transparency, but I'm not for transparency when it makes us have too many cases that are open pending lab analysis.”

For that reason, among others, Hunt welcomes the county's and city's talks of a potential crime lab merger, because he thinks that a joint system would reduce the city lab's backlog, which, apparently, to Hunt, is equal to or worse than the backlog at the previous HPD lab.

Data from the Houston Forensic Science Center, however, show that that's not the case. In fact, overall average turnaround times — the average time between when evidence is delivered to the lab and when it's finally tested — have been slashed from HPD's 140 days to just over 50 days.

Backlogs in some areas, like sexual assault kit testing and DNA testing, still exist. But Stout said that, for example, when backlogs started piling up for the sexual assault cases last year, the lab was clearing only 40 cases a month; last month, it cleared 120, and so he expects the 333-case backlog will go down. (Yesterday, Mayor Turner promised it will be cleared by June.) That's compared to a backlog of more than 6,600 sexual assault cases under HPD's management, one of its largest problems. In other areas where the HPD lab was having the most trouble, for example controlled substance testing, turnaround time is now as low as 13 days, compared to months or even years.

Hunt's reaction to the new bosses at the crime lab isn't unexpected, Thompson said. In writing her book, Thompson said she spent a lot of time studying the "growing pains" that law enforcement goes through when working for civilian management at crime labs. For example, Hunt said it's been hard for some of the Crime Scene Unit investigators to show up to investigate a homicide scene only for a non-cop to be barking orders about what types of evidence to collect. But while it may take awhile for the growing pains to subside, Thompson said that keeping independent, non-police forensic experts in charge should be the direction in which crime labs across the country begin moving.

That is, unless a crime lab merger strips the Houston Forensic Science Center of its independent future. 

Stout, the chief operating officer, said that if people are so concerned about efficiency and processing cases quickly, this isn't the time to be talking about a merger. He said it may be easy to forget that, if the best and brightest from each lab are focusing on making a merger work, in turn, they'll be focusing less on processing cases swiftly. And as much as Ray Hunt may disagree, they care about that just as much as he does.
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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