San Francisco police today asked a Board of Supervisors committee and the public for time and patience, and possibly more money, to deal with the Police Department’s scandalized crime lab.
The board’s public safety committee called the hearing for a progress report on the lab, where former employee Deborah Madden allegedly took small amounts of cocaine from evidence last year.
Though Madden has not been charged in connection with the lab, her alleged misconduct caused Police Chief George Gascon in March to order drug testing at the lab temporarily halted.
The subsequent investigation of the lab and its employees, as well as delays and outsourcing of drug testing to outside labs, has prompted prosecutors to dismiss hundreds of cases from court.
“Obviously the situation’s got much worse than really anyone’s imagined,” Supervisor David Chiu said at the opening of today’s hearing.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said the hearing had originally been called to address the issue of a backlog in DNA testing at the lab, until the “implosion” of the lab due to the Madden investigation.
Mirkarimi wondered whether the issues of the lab extended beyond Madden to “a more systemic problem.”
Police Assistant Chief Jeff Godown, who oversees the crime lab, told the committee that the investigation into the lab’s operations and employees is still ongoing. The investigation is also seeking to determine who among the department’s command staff knew of the problems, and when.
“We’re still trying to piece the parts together,” Godown said.
Godown said he could not account for the delay between the time police apparently first became aware of the evidence tampering allegations against Madden in December, and the opening of a formal criminal investigation in late February.
He said the department is still trying to bring the drug lab into compliance with recent outside audits that identified several areas of concern.
Problems noted included limited staff overburdened with high caseloads and 48-hour deadlines, chain-of-custody issues and sloppy working conditions.
“There’s no doubt, it’s a mess,” Godown said.
“Don’t judge me today,” he told the supervisors. “Judge me six or seven months down the road.”
Police emphasized that the crime lab’s DNA and firearms testing units remain operational. The results of an outside audit of the DNA lab are expected by the end of this month.
The crime lab’s overall budget last year was $4.7 million, according to Capt. David Lazar, the new commanding officer of the lab, who reports to Godown.
Lazar said the Police Department is hoping to hire five new criminalists this year to help relieve the workload.
In addition, police are putting together “a master to-do list,” looking at the best practices of other crime labs, Lazar said.
“We’re just going to chip away at it, one by one,” he said.
Godown added, “It’s going to cost money, there’s no doubt.”
Gascon said at a separate news conference later in the day that he hoped to complete a criminal investigation of the lab in May. He also brushed aside the suggestion by Public Defender Jeff Adachi for an independent crime lab, separate from police and prosecutors.
“It’s too early to be jumping to conclusions here,” said Gascon. He said a “thorough investigation” was needed first, and a “knee-jerk reaction would not be in the best interests of the public.”