AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s Public Safety Commission wants City Council to find $5.6 million this year to erase a growing case backlog nearing 1,500 cases. The new money will ‘clear the decks’ in 6-12 months in the words of longtime Commissioner Mike Levy and allow the now-shuttered lab to reopen with a clean start.
Police confirm that is now on track to happen in February. The facility was shuttered in late May after an audit revealed staff were not keeping up with international technical standards among other issues.
Asst. Police Chief Troy Gay told commissioners Tuesday each backlogged case would cost about $4,000 to send to independent labs. Forty-five percent of the backlogged cases have a sexual assault component. Those numbers were compelling enough for commissioners to send a strong message to full council which has to decide on this year’s budget within weeks.
The proposed $5.6 million (1,500 cases at $4,000 each) would be on top of nearly $1.4 million council is currently considering to hire seven additional DNA analysts and a supervisor. The hires would add to six existing positions and allow APD to handle a caseload that numbers about 94 a month. The national standards suggest an analyst can do 10 cases a month.
Of the 1,500 cases, 357 are sexual assault kits. To relieve that issue, there is already a proposal – $500,000 council is considering spending to have rape kits that have been submitted to the lab since April 2015 tested externally.
If nothing’s done about the backlog, it’s estimated it would take up to four years to eliminate it. Chief Gay told commissioners 45% of the total backlog (about 700 cases) “have a sexual assault component.”
Beyond the new funding to erase the backlog, the Public Safety Commission put this further challenge to Austin Police: once the lab reopens, to operate without a backlog, and turn around each case in 3-4 weeks. It’s doable, Chief Gay says, if staffing is bumped up to the proposal before council. Police say the average DNA case from evidence collection to final analysis was taking 224 days, a timeline sexual assault survivor advocates call incomprehensible.
Police executives say they hope that is about to change. Chief Gay says the city is two weeks way from hiring a new lab manager – someone with a scientific background who can oversee the lab when reopens. Right now, cases are going to outside labs or to the DPS lab for analysis.
Gay also suggests that until recently accountability and transparency at the crime lab has been missing. In fact, as they did to revamp the 911 call center in 2014, APD put a police commander over the forensic division and its rebuilding.
“When you’re looking at the scientific community you need to have the best people. I think if you have one person who is in charge with no accountability your direction and keeping up with the scientific community could be challenging, Gay tells KXAN News.
“We are going to be having two scientists, one a supervisor, one actually the manager of the lab who will provide direction and oversight to ensure our department is always adhering to the best practices regarding the forensics community.”
Accreditation process questioned
So how did the lab even receive accreditation if it was operating using dated methods especially when it came to processing mixed DNA evidence?
“I think that is a question we’re all still trying to answer. That is still out and we still want answers. We are accredited through a national accreditation association. The Texas Forensic Science Commission has actually sent them a letter asking them to answer a few questions regarding our accreditation status.
“We hope to have some answers. (But) we’re trying to look forward.”
In coming months, Commissioners may return to the idea of recommending the creation of an independent forensics department outside the police department under the ME’s office as done in Dallas or an independent local corporation as is done in Houston.
Separately, federal grant money (the DANY fund) is being used to steadily clear 3,000 older (pre April 2015) sex assault kits each quarter at a pace of 500 a month, Chief Gay says.
Budget deadline looming
A deadline of the middle of September is looming for Austin City Council to finalize its budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.
Commissioners also talked about the police budget. The city hired the Matrix Consulting Group to examine how the police department could utilize its resources better and how many additional officers are needed. The firm made 61 suggestions and Tuesday the President of the group will speak before the commission to answer questions.
Some changes considered include moving officers who have been on desk work back out on patrol and hiring civilians to fill their jobs inside police headquarters. The budget also asks for 12 additional officers.
Mayor Steve Adler says he doesn’t like the process for deciding how public safety is funded because throughout the year council receives individual requests for things like overtime, body armor, or new technology for license plate readers. He would like more of a long range vision.
“There has got to be a way to consider these things in the overall context and also over a five-year time frame so we need to get a group after this process who will look at public spending,” says Adler.
Mayor Adler has called the council to a special meeting both Thursday and Friday to try and work through some of these budget items.