- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2000

District of Columbia police and prosecutors have expressed concern about potential delays and mistakes in major criminal investigations because the ranks of the city's police evidence technicians are stretched too thin.

Understaffed and underfunded, the Mobile Crime Lab has about 44 technicians who, in addition to gathering and analyzing evidence and testifying in court, are required to patrol the streets one week each month under the Metropolitan Police Department's new deployment plan.

Wilma A. Lewis, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, has worried that evidence will not be ready for prosecutors, who must persuade a grand jury to return an indictment against a suspect within 100 days or the suspect must be released.

"We have serious concerns over the potential and real impact redeployment has on our ability to have cases investigated and evidence analyzed in time for trial, especially in the 100-day cases," Miss Lewis said.

"The ultimate goal must be to find solutions that not only serve the public safety interest of the community, but that do not adversely affect our ability to prosecute a case."

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said that if Miss Lewis is concerned about police officers' workloads, she should have her office process charges at night.

"Let the U.S. attorney give me night papering. Let the U.S. attorney run the U.S. Attorney's Office and let the police chief run the police department," said the chief, citing a long-standing irritation between the two agencies. "When there is a job opening, let her apply."

Since the new deployment began Aug. 22, a few cases have come close to missing the 100-day deadline because of late evidence, said an assistant U.S. attorney who asked not to be identified.

The deployment's 100th day is Nov. 29, and prosecutors are checking to see if any cases are in jeopardy of missing the deadline.

Chief Ramsey began the new deployment to address concerns that not enough officers were on city streets when most crimes occur. The deployment requires about 800 desk officers to patrol streets from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. one week each month.

The deployment has received criticism from rank-and-file officers who have complained about how the shift change has hurt their performance in their regular duties.

"It is disgusting. I have to stand there and direct traffic at a shooting rather than doing my job collecting," said a crime lab officer. "I have to look over there and yell [to another technician], 'You missed something.' "

Some officers said the deployment not only is increasing delays for the crime lab that could let criminals walk the streets but also creating a potential for tainted evidence, allowing defense lawyers sway with a jury.

In addition, top police officials have substituted novice crime-scene search officers based in district substations for the experienced lab technicians on deployment, officers said.

"Now we've brought back guys with two years or less experience handling murders, while the experienced guys walk the beat," one crime lab official said.

With less-experienced officers handling evidence from major crimes like homicide or rape, mistakes are more likely to happen, police officials said.

"Crime-scene search is crucial," said Sgt. Gerald G. Neill, who heads the D.C. police union. "The scrutiny of the case demands you have your best people doing the work.

"The jury doesn't want to hear they were redeployed," he said. "The jury will say, 'Why didn't you send the best technicians?' "

The integrity of evidence could suffer because the lab officers already handicapped by having to outsource DNA work are weary from spending their nights on the street and their days in court or the lab, officials said.

But Chief Ramsey said the department can allow technicians to continue working on evidence rather than reporting to patrol, and they can be excused from deployment if they are called into court all day.

The potential for evidence delay looms over the crime lab, officials there said. If lab officers are working a case and must go on deployment the next day, the evidence just sits until they return the next week, a lab official said.

Officers normally must devote three or four days to examining, packaging and investigating evidence. But since the deployment, as few as three experienced lab officers are working, creating a backlog of cases and paperwork, the lab official said.

For most major crimes, like homicide and especially rape, forensic evidence is often the prosecution's key to a conviction. A good case can die if the evidence is tainted or collected improperly.

"Once it's lost, it's lost. Once it's contaminated, it's contaminated. You can't use it," said Sgt. Neill, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police Metropolitan Police Labor Committee.

"That evidence is what's scrutinized most in trials," he said. "You really want to have your best officers from mobile crime doing crime scene search."

Chief Ramsey said the problem "seems to be more of a management issue about getting evidence in on a timely basis.

"If it so happens you are in the middle of processing evidence and instead of leaving it there until next week, why couldn't they ask to miss one day of redeployment?" the chief said. "I'm not aware of anyone making that kind of request."

A law enforcement source said several felony cases have been delayed because evidence has not been processed. In addition, the U.S. attorney has had to pay additional money to laboratories to expedite evidence processing in several cases because the evidence was delayed from the mobile crime lab.

Lab technicians must take DNA evidence from their office in Southwest to a lab at the FBI's national headquarters in Northwest, or to a private company in Gaithersburg. To preserve the chain of custody, the officers must deliver it themselves and cannot use a private shipper.

Chief Ramsey said Miss Lewis should help him find $25 million to establish a crime laboratory so that evidence can be processed in it by city workers rather than by the FBI and private companies.

Court obligations coupled with the street patrols wreak havoc on officers' families and sleep patterns, lab officials said.

"When we are on deployment, we still have to go to court. I've been getting about three hours' sleep a day in my truck," a mobile crime officer said Thursday. "I haven't seen my family since Tuesday."

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