A new state audit of the San Francisco Police Department's scandal-plagued crime lab drug-testing unit concludes the tiny unit is overburdened with too many cases to be safely and accurately completed in time for criminal charging.
The audit, released Tuesday, 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.
Gascon called a news conference at 2:30 p.m. today to discuss the audit.
Among the auditors' findings, in addition to staffing concerns, were improper documentation of chain-of-custody, for internal transfers of drug evidence between analysts; record-keeping inconsistencies regarding the regular calibration of lab equipment; improper sealing of 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.
The lab also 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 quickly 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.
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."