WASHINGTON — With new leadership, a new data management system and, soon, newly-retrained DNA technicians, the department of forensic sciences is working to solve its past mistakes.
It is a mission aided by an $8 million infusion thanks to a supplemental budget pushed through by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.
“I think the mayor has taken a serious look at some of the issues that were present in the department and she has made a substantial effort to try to rectify some of those problems that are here. And we’ll be able to do that faster because this is a supplement,” says Dr. Jenifer Smith, the new director of the department.
Smith says the money means more personnel, better training, equipment upgrades and the faster processing of case backlogs. The allotment for the forensic sciences department is the largest piece of the $23 million supplemental package that was proposed by the mayor and passed through D.C. Council last month.
The supplemental budget is a part of a broader push called “Safer, Stronger DC” to halt a spike in homicides in the District this year.
“Nearly half the money the mayor has given us is going to allow us to hire additional individuals, additional scientists, that will begin to replace some of the officers that are now doing crime scene collection within the city,” Smith says.
This will give the Metropolitan Police Department the flexibility to put those officers back on the street focused on investigations. Most of the other half of the money will go to cutting down on a case backlog in the firearms, fingerprint and DNA units.
“Because those are the units, if you think about it, that’s the type of evidence if you think about it that’s the bread and butter of most forensic laboratories: DNA, firearms, fingerprints,” Smith says. “What [Mayor Bowser], in essence, has given us is the ability to hire sufficient people or get contractor assistance while we’re in the process of hiring and training people to really work through these cases to get those backlogs down so we can address every murder, every rape almost right after they’ve happened.”
The supplemental budget funds the hiring of 50 more employees in a department that was funded for 139 positions. Increasing manpower by a third should go a long way to slimming the backlog and putting a priority on every case.
“That is the ideal goal, that no murder is more important than another murder,” Smith says.
The department is also transitioning to a new data management system designed to step up efficiency. The laboratory information management system (LIMS) went live at the beginning of October. There was no such system in place before that.
“We weren’t able to track our evidence, in a sense,” Smith says. “Sometimes we weren’t able to find the evidence, sadly, so having that type of system available to us will allow us to get this kind of data so we can sort of better predict turnaround times.”
These systems are standard for laboratories across the nation and it should speed up the processing of cases for the department while also cutting down on mistakes.
“Having such a critical piece of our infrastructure missing is a disservice,” says LaShon Beamon, spokesperson for the department of forensic sciences. “Effectively tracking and monitoring and providing analytical data on what we do is essentially assumed, that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Smith took over as director of forensic sciences in July, inheriting a department that saw massive turnover in the wake of a pair of audits forcing the suspension of DNA testing by the lab. Private contractors have been processing DNA tests since the spring as the staff at forensic sciences go through a retraining.
“There were actually some structural issues, systemic issues. They didn’t have a LIMS system within the DNA unit to help them track information,” Smith says. “The manager had so much responsibility, and we’ve taken that and spread those responsibilities to other positions.”
Smith spent 23 years in the FBI, in part overseeing the DNA analysis at the bureau’s laboratory. She says the staff at the department’s lab are in the testing phase of an intensive retraining. It’s a retraining made possible by this hiatus in testing.
“We’ve given them a new process that they’re learning about. It’s kind of like a total refit of that unit and how they’re going to process cases,” Smith says. “So not only are they learning about that, but we’re taking the opportunity to really look at how our efficiencies will change and hopefully improve upon.”
The mission of the department reaches beyond criminal cases. The public health lab is also under the forensic sciences umbrella. The lab will test samples from hospitals to determine if there’s an outbreak, or a food safety issue. Recently, the lab uncovered the salmonella outbreak originating at Fig & Olive restaurants.
Reginald Blackwell is the senior medical technologist in the lab. He says hospitals in the region we reporting a jump in gastrointestinal illnesses.
“We wound up getting those specimen and running them an alerting the CDC that we’re seeing this increase in our city. CDC then uses that information and checks the whole country,” Blackwell says. “What was passing as normal, wasn’t normal and we caught it.”
Blackwell says his lab was the first to notice the salmonella strain.
“They realized those people had been at Fig & Olive and so that was a way to correlate,” Blackwell says.
The lab also helps in testing for which flu strain will be predominate in the season, which aids the CDC in determining the right flu vaccine to administer.