Chief Gascon: We'll Fix the Drug Lab

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Justin Sullivan
    SAN FRANCISCO - AUGUST 11: New San Francisco police Chief George Gascon looks on during his first news conference August 11, 2009 at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco, California. Gascon, the former chief of police of Mesa, Arizona, was sworn in as the new chief of the San Francisco Police deparment last week. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

    San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon 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 Tuesday, 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.