San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon today acknowledged criticisms in a new state audit of the drug-testing unit at the Police Department’s scandal-plagued crime lab and promised to fix them.
The audit of the lab’s drug-testing unit, released today, concluded in part that the unit is overburdened with too many cases to safely and accurately complete them in time for criminal charging.
The audit was undertaken in response to allegations that Deborah Madden, a former lab employee, stole small quantities of cocaine from evidence at the lab. Madden has not been charged, but went on leave in December and retired March 1.
“The stress and strain of trying to meet the demands of court has resulted in sacrificing quality for quantity” at the lab, wrote auditors Robert Jarzen, director of the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office Laboratory of Forensic Services, and John Yoshida, of California Department of Justice Bureau of Forensic Services.
The audit was conducted over three days last week.
“This is evident throughout the laboratory processes used in the controlled substances unit; and, possibly provided the opportunity for evidence tampering and abuse of the evidence control system,” Jarzen and Yoshida wrote.
Police Chief George Gascon ordered drug testing at the lab halted temporarily on March 9, pending results of the audit. He said he learned of the allegations in late February.
Since then, prosecutors have discharged or dismissed hundreds of new and ongoing drug cases, and are considering dismissing 1,400 more ongoing cases this week.
At a news conference today, Gascon acknowledged the audit was “rightfully so, very critical of some of the things that went on in our lab.”
“This is a problem that started with the San Francisco Police Department,” he said. “I was brought here to fix many of the perceived problems of the San Francisco Police Department, and it will be fixed by the San Francisco Police Department with the help of others.”
“The lab will not reopen until corrective measures are taken to make sure that we’re in full compliance with the recommendations that were put together by the Department of Justice,” Gascon said.
Gascon said he was not sure how long that would be, but that the Police Department would continue to make drug arrests and that drug cases would continue to be prosecuted.
Drug evidence is currently being sent to outside labs for testing.
In addition to staffing concerns, the audit found problems with the documentation of “chain-of-custody,” with regard to keeping proper records of transfers of drug evidence between analysts at the lab. It also found inconsistencies in records kept on the regular calibration of lab equipment; improper sealing and storage of drug evidence; and chemicals not properly labeled with hazardous warning labels.
The audit also noted that lab staff were not up to date with required training and infrequently attended professional meetings to keep abreast of current technology.
Further, the lab does not have adequate space to handle the volume of drug evidence, and cleaning supplies and cabinets are stored in the hallways, the audit stated.
Lab employees are given 48 hours to analyze drug evidence so prosecutors can charge those recently arrested.
That short time frame, combined with an annual caseload of more than 14,000 cases and a limited staff of two to three analysts, “creates an untenable situation and directly affects the quality of the analytical work,” the auditors wrote.
“Good laboratory practices have been repeatedly short-changed in favor of high case throughput,” the audit stated.
The audit noted that while the average caseload for a crime lab analyst in California was slightly more than 1,000 cases per year, San Francisco crime lab analysts take on 5,000 to 7,000 cases per year. And while the average turnaround for results is expected to be between one and 20 days, San Francisco requires a maximum two-day turnaround.
The department is currently retraining officers to do “presumptive” testing of suspected drugs on the street, the results of which can be used by prosecutors to file charges while they are waiting for the results from outside labs.
The audit recommends that the Police Department increase staff at the lab.
Other recommendations included a modern laboratory information management system with electronic recording of chain-of-custody and lab report generation; a method for ensuring secure transfers of drug evidence; and a secure central storage area for incoming and outgoing evidence, “rather than a box on the floor.”
“I’m in full agreement with the audit,” said Gascon. With regard to hiring more personnel at the drug lab, though, he said that might take longer.
The drug lab is currently budgeted for six workers. Gascon said he’d like to double that number.
In the short term, however, Gascon said the drug lab will look to contract out work to reduce caseloads.
A similar audit of the crime lab’s DNA-testing unit is expected in April.