Forensic DNA testing has reached an all-time high in San Diego crime labs. What has always been so famed in Hollywood crime shows has now become incredibly successful in solving real life crimes. So successful in fact, that recently law enforcement crime labs are bursting with more work than they are equipped to handle. In 2013 alone, the Sheriff’s Regional Crime Laboratory staff is projected to send about 2,900 requests for DNA analysis. Currently, the lab has a backlog of nearly 180 cases, which is lower than the average of anywhere from 200 to 400 cases. San Diego labs have just received a federal grant of about $380,000 to help manage that backlog and press on into future endeavors, which they have come to count on thanks to the U.S. Justice Department’s DNA Backlog Reduction Program. The purpose of the program and grant money is to avoid labs from slipping too far behind on cases. The grants also go towards overtime pay, software programs, equipment purchase and maintenance, resulting in reducing the use of government budgets to pay for permanent funding. Steve Guroff, supervising criminalist at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Regional Crime Lab stated, “If we didn’t have these grants, we’d still have DNA analysis. But we wouldn’t be as responsive to the needs of our clients. They give us a lot of flexibility to do what we do.” With 19 criminalists and supervisors, the sheriff’s DNA crime lab serves sheriff and district attorney’s investigators and almost every police agency in the county. Guroff also said that he intends to buy an $110,000 DNA analyzer that runs eight samples at once to replace an aging machine that does only one at a time and stated, “These grants mean we don’t have analysts waiting for equipment. Our backlog actually is lower than in the past. We’ve squeezed all the inefficiencies out of the system.”
Once a case has been issued, if analysis results are not fulfilled within 30 days the case is then considered backlogged. Although the chemical processes only take on average a few days, most requests are taking 60 to 90 days to get to. Guroff explained that much of that time is waiting to receive confirmation from the investigator or prosecutor that a crime case is moving forward and DNA information is still needed. He stated, “We don’t want to bog down our system with unnecessary procedures.” Lab manager Jennifer Shen also added that, “We’re trying to update our equipment to the latest and greatest. Another way of handling the high case load has been prioritizing requests. All test requests where the suspect’s identity is known generally fall to lower priority over requests where the suspect’s identity is not known. Guroff estimated that this year alone, requests to the lab will be up about 17 percent and continue to rise again in 2014 by 10 percent. This rise is contributed to the fact that DNA analysis is now being used to solve property crimes, burglaries, and other smaller-scale crimes rather than only violent crimes, such as rape and murder, as it was used for originally. “A large reason our requests have gone up so much is, we can look for smaller and smaller amounts of DNA to get a profile,” Shen said. “We don’t have to visibly see it to get a sample of it now. Maybe a bank robber leaves a hat or glove behind. You can get a DNA profile off that.” In fact, about 75 percent of the DNA caseload now is for property crimes. “Once we started getting results and prosecutions, that raised the demand. It helps investigators reduce the crime rate and increase public safety,” Guroff said.
“Grants speed up DNA crime-solving”– U-T San Diego, October 13, 2013