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Public Hearing on the Proposed FY2007 Budget for the District of Columbia Consolidated Forensics & Public Health Laboratory

Monday, March 27, 2006

Public Hearing on the Proposed FY2007 Budget for the District of Columbia Consolidated Forensics & Public Health Laboratory

Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

Charles H. Ramsey
Chief of Police
Metropolitan Police Department

The following statement was presented to the Council of the District of Columbia, Committee on the Judiciary, The Honorable Phil Mendelson, Chair on March 27, 2006, at the Council Chamber, John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.
  • Download a printable version of the statement
Mr. Mendelson, members of the Committee, staff and guests. Thank you for the opportunity to read this opening statement into the record and to answer any questions you may have. The full text of my remarks is posted on the Department’s website: http://www.mpdc.dc.gov/.
 
Over the years, advancements in DNA analysis and other forensics technology have provided law enforcement with tremendous benefits in the short-term, as well as amazing promise and potential for the future. While television has certainly popularized the importance of DNA to modern crime fighting, law enforcement agencies across the country can point to any number of real-life cases that have been solved through the use of DNA analysis. Here in the District, we recently closed a 23-year-old murder case based largely on DNA evidence.
 
But entertainment programs such as “CSI” and “Law and Order” gloss over one very important reality: to take full advantage of DNA technology, agencies need the resources – bricks-and-mortar, specialized equipment and highly trained staff – to do the job. Unfortunately, the District of Columbia has been behind the curve – far behind the curve, for a long period of time – when it comes to harnessing the power of DNA technology. During the 1970s, 80s and 90s, when some jurisdictions were investing in building or expanding the capacity of their crime labs, the District continued to rely on the federal government to handle most of its lab operations. In recent years, it has become clear to everyone – the Mayor, the Council, the MPD and certainly the community – that this situation is no longer tenable. To support our crime fighting efforts, the District needs its own crime laboratory – and one that is capable of taking full advantage of the latest in DNA and other forensics technologies. 
 
We are finally moving in that direction, with plans under way to construct a consolidated laboratory that will include a fully functional crime lab to support the MPD. But at the same time we are moving toward a new lab, we still have the considerable challenge of managing our current DNA caseload, using our existing resources and continuing to rely on other organizations for considerable support. We simply don’t have the luxury of being able to shut down current operations and concentrate on designing and building a new lab. We need to do both, and we need to do both using the limited resources at our immediate disposal.

This remains a major challenge for our Department, just as DNA analysis remains a major challenge for jurisdictions across the country. The fact of the matter is that there are resource pressures nationwide when it comes to forensics, including a limited pool of qualified scientists and labs that do not all have the cutting-edge technology that makes it look so easy on TV. DC is not alone in confronting a backlog of DNA cases; even jurisdictions with their own labs are facing significant and growing backlogs in many cases. So at a time when we are looking for ways to better manage our own DNA caseload, we are competing for resources with other jurisdictions that have their own backlogs and their own challenges as well.

Recognizing this situation, we are determined to meet the challenges here in DC, with the support of both the District and federal governments. As the Committee is aware, our Department has 10 forensic positions to work exclusively on MPD cases at the FBI Lab in Quantico.  These included a manager position, whose job was both to supervise the training and work of the new staff and to advise the Department on the creation of the crime lab. It’s important to understand that the process of hiring forensic specialists and getting them up and running is much more rigorous than hiring most any other civilian employees in our agency.  Because of the sensitivity of their work, the FBI requires that these staff members undergo extensive background investigations.  And because of the highly technical nature of their jobs, it takes months of specialized training – 18 months in the case of biologist/DNA forensic examiners – before these employees are able to work on their own.
 
Unfortunately, two of the biologists we originally hired, including one who had completed 16 months of training, recently resigned. So did the manager, Dr. Kevin Miller. The Department is actively recruiting to fill these three positions. We ran an ad in Sunday’s Washington Post, and the positions have been advertised on our website. Filling these positions as quickly and successfully as possible is a priority for our Department. In addition, the Mayor’s proposed budget for FY 2007 funds 10 additional staff for the lab.  This would include DNA examiners and technicians, as well as quality control and case administration specialists.  Based on the FBI’s experience and recommendation, hiring quality control and case administration personnel will increase the productivity of the DNA examiners and technicians by allowing them to focus on the scientific aspects of cases instead of administrative matters.
 
We also intend to hire a Project Manager, who will report directly to me, and who will concentrate on longer-term, strategic goals in this area. Among other things, the Project Manager will work with the Office of Property Management and others on planning the MPD’s operations at the new consolidated lab, and he or she will be responsible for developing a strategic transition plan, incorporating personnel, training and equipment needs. The Project Manager will also oversee some key interim activities, including working with other labs to address the current backlog of DNA cases, and reviewing and recommending improvements for our entire forensics operations as they relate to DNA. Though the details still need to be worked out, I expect that Dr. William Vosburgh will be hired for this position.  Dr. Vosburgh is a highly qualified forensic scientist who helped to develop crime labs for the police departments of both Anne Arundel County and Prince George’s County. 

It has become clear that a shortcoming of our previous staffing plan was that the long-term strategic planning was being coordinated by the manager of the daily operations at Quantico and Commander Christopher Lojacono, the Director of MPD’s Forensic Science Division.  Each of these responsibilities – daily operations of the lab at Quantico, MPD’s current Forensic responsibilities, and the long-term strategic planning for MPD’s portion of the consolidated lab – require full attention.  Dividing these responsibilities between three managers should provide the leadership that is needed to move forward in all these areas.

To further support our efforts, I have asked the FBI to conduct a comprehensive examination of how our Department collects, handles and stores all types of evidence, and to recommend improvements.  In addition, our Department met with the FBI late last year to discuss ways to speed up the analysis of the MPD’s DNA cases at the Quantico lab and to get more of our cases entered into CODIS.

Finally, I want to address the issue of grant spending. With the support of the Mayor and the Council, our Department has been able to secure approximately $338,000 in federal funds to enhance our DNA analysis capacity and another $188,000 to help reduce the current backlog of DNA cases. More than half of the funds for capacity enhancement has already been spent or encumbered for critical laboratory equipment.  The remaining funds will be used primarily to purchase additional equipment.   

To date, we have spent approximately $60,000 in the DNA backlog reduction grant, which has gone toward DNA testing at outside laboratories.  I know there has been some concern that these funds were not spent more quickly.  However, because the private labs cannot enter any results into CODIS, we were still not getting the full advantage of the DNA analysis.  We have been in discussions with the City of Baltimore about a partnership that would allow us to send some DC backlog cases to its lab for analysis.  The Baltimore lab would be able to support both the DNA analysis and the entry of our case information into CODIS.  We hope to formalize an MOU shortly, and then use the remaining funding for the backlog reduction to send cases to Baltimore.  We have also reached out to several other local labs to explore similar agreements.  In FY 2006, we received a three-year grant for $700,000 through the Justice Grants Administration.  This will also help the Department to reduce the DNA backlog. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of my statement, the District was very slow in “getting out of the gate” when it comes to DNA technology, and we have had to play catch-up ever since. And while we have taken a number of interim steps in the last few years to enhance our DNA analysis capabilities and provide some short-term support to our crime-fighting efforts, the bottom line remains the same: the MPD will never be able to take full advantage of the benefits and the potential of DNA technology until we have our own, fully functional DC crime lab. All of us need to keep focused and working together toward achieving that common goal. 

Thank you.