Tucson Police Department
The Tucson Police crime lab is in a conundrum. New technology over the years has meant lab workers increasingly pore over more evidence and even lead the way in criminal investigations. Yet the about 30-member staff has not been increased to keep up, creating a growing backlog that investigators say sometimes means tests aren’t done in time to be used in cases. The lab processes all tests for the department, while the state Department of Public Safety crime lab here does so for DPS and all other law enforcement agencies in the area. Tucson Assistant Police Chief Kathleen Robinson is in charge of the Investigative Services Bureau, which includes TPD’s crime lab. She recently discussed the situation with Tucson Citizen staff writer David L. Teibel.
Q: How important is lab work in a criminal investigation?
A: Many times it is critical. Many times it leads the investigation. Many times the crime lab can lead investigators to an end, especially DNA, which can identify a suspect or eliminate one. Many times that is important to us – that we can eliminate a suspect.
Q: What is the problem with the crime lab and how bad is it?
A: The problem is our requests to the lab are too numerous. Now we can get DNA matches from objects you couldn’t even dream of before – from samples not even visible to the naked eye: An arm brushing against another arm or object leaves skin cells that can be analyzed. The workload has increased because of technical advances and it’s not just here, it’s across the country. All the agencies are struggling.
Q: What is the wait time for lab results and what types of cases are affected?
A: It depends on how cases are prioritized, it depends on how many evidence samples must be examined and on the type of case. Homicides, adult and child sexual assaults, other crimes against children, cases going to trial soon, they get the highest priority. As a result, robberies, burglaries and other crimes get lower priority. Some never get analyzed. I don’t know of any cases we lost because of a lack of lab work, but some have had to be dismissed and charges refiled later, after lab work is completed.
Q: Can cases be sent to the state Department of Public Safety crime lab in Tucson and can that lab get the work done faster?
A: Cases can be sent to DPS, but (it is) understaffed, too. They have backlogs and sometimes the wait is just as long. We routinely send trace evidence, such as fibers; questioned documents, such as those in fraud cases; and requests for toxicology exams to DPS.
Q: Are some cases being sent to private labs for analysis? If so, how much does that cost?
A: Yes, we did that several months ago when we thought we had some serial sexual assaults. But, it’s very expensive. We sent seven cases suspected of being part of a series to a private lab and it cost us $32,000. The lab work ruled out a connection in the cases.
Q: Does the Police Department have a plan to solve the problem? If so what is it and how much is it estimated to cost.
A: We’re increasing our staffing in the lab, we just hired a new DNA coordinator, technical leader and we will hire three additional technicians in the next few months. Part of the problem is when the lab techs – properly known as criminalists – reach the pay grade of Criminalist 2, TPD’s highest pay grade for criminalists, they are hired away by other agencies that have pay steps the equivalent of Criminalist 3 and 4. We’re, I think, the lowest-paid crime lab in the state. If not we’re certainly at the bottom of the scale. We need more lab space. Next year, we expect to move evidence storage to another building and use the vacated 9,000 square feet at headquarters for additional lab space. I need to hire … eight staff members over the next two years for the crime lab. It all will cost millions of dollars, but I don’t have an estimate right now.
Q: Does the public understand the importance of funding support staff, such as lab technicians, or do people tend to think only in terms of hiring uniformed officers to address crime in Tucson?
A: We’ve tried to educate people in that area, but, no, many times our own police officers don’t understand how important support staff is. Our support staff is so critical because they do so much for us. You have to have that support staff that is going to analyze the evidence, because the more officers you have out there, the more evidence they’re collecting.
PHOTO CAPTION: Tucson Citizen file photo
The workload has increased because of technical advances and it’s not just here, it’s across the country. All the agencies are struggling. (Mug of Robinson)