OSP captain describes Oregon's DNA backlog like 'Whac-a-Mole' game

OSP lab technician tests DNA kit. (Courtesy: Oregon State Police)

As property crimes soar in Oregon, local law enforcement agencies are short one crime-fighting tool that's considered crucial in solving property crimes: DNA testing.

Oregon State Police (OSP) decided to suspend DNA analysis for property crime evidence in December 2015, including the highly successful High Throughput Property Crimes (HTPC) pilot program.

The decision came as state lawmakers mandated the agency to prioritize Sexual Assault Forensics Evidence (SAFE) kits, commonly used in rape or sex abuse investigations. The mandate was later called "Melissa's Law," named in honor of Melissa Bitler, 14, who was raped and killed in 2001.

Her death helped reveal Portland police had a huge backlog in untested rape kits, with nearly 2,000 still to be tested, and approximately 4,900 statewide. The law would require departments to test every kit.

To do that, the agency needed to shift already-tight resources to meet requirements and place other testing on hold or on a priority scale.

Oregon State Police Forensic Services Division is directed by Capt. Alex Gardner, who is charged with managing five crime labs statewide. Only one, in Portland, has the capability to process and analyze DNA.

"For the last few years, we’ve been artificially suppressing our work volume by restricting what we accept from police agencies, because we’re not staffed or equipped to do it," Gardner told KATU. "Oregon’s sheriffs, chiefs, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys have been supportive of the work and extremely patient, because they know OSP staffing hasn’t kept up with population or demand, but they need our help, because sending the work to outside labs is prohibitively expensive -- even if they don’t require related expert testimony."

Oregon’s population has grown by almost 1.5 million people since 1980, and the state has added many more miles of highway since then, yet Gardner says OSP's staffing level is below the 1980 level.

A study conducted by the agency (slide 8) says in 1980, OSP had 624 patrol troopers & sergeants. This year, there are only 381, and 12 fewer field offices.

Gardner says the same can be said about its crime lab capacity.

"The demand for forensic science has been increasing as well, particularly over the last 20 years, because of simple math and CSI-induced expectations," he said. "We didn’t do DNA analysis in 1980, but now we have thousands of requests for that analysis."

The biggest losers

According to statistics, between August 2017 and August 2018, Portland Police took 4,764 burglary reports, and on average, 13 new cases each day.

Mike Rogers is considered a statistic. His Southeast Portland apartment was broken into one night in July while he was asleep.

"Absolutely, someone invaded my home, not to sound dramatic, but that is what happened," Rogers told KATU. "[I] appreciate ... that I didn’t see them, and I didn’t hear them, because I did not have to live with that memory of having heard someone in the living room, or having seen someone, or having to confront someone."

The thief ripped off a window screen and stole a laptop, smartphone and duffel bag with personal belongings.

A forensic investigator dusted for fingerprints, but was unsuccessful.

None of the items were recovered. And like so many others, the case remains unsolved.

"Solvability"

With so many property crime reports, detectives generally prioritize cases by what they call "solvability."

When a burglary report is submitted, detectives inspect for property damage and look for witnesses. They look for video surveillance, whether the resident or neighbors have cameras. If it warrants, forensics analysts search for fingerprints.

If the stolen property is unique, detectives may search online marketplaces for stolen items. However, if detectives have no luck online, and they don't find witnesses, there's no video surveillance, and forensics analysts are unable to lift a fingerprint -- the case falls in priority because its solvability is low.

Agencies strongly recommend residents invest in home surveillance or doorbell cameras and advise locking doors and securing windows when possible. They also recommend property owners to save and note product serial numbers. If items are found, it is easier for agencies to reunite property.

"Whac-a-Mole" backlogs, solutions & lawmakers' responses

Not every property crime or burglary case warrants DNA sampling, but a number of local agencies say it is another tool, and a useful tool, when trying to link one case to another case or a string of cases.

A number of local police agencies told KATU they are still collecting and storing DNA evidence from property crime cases, and will continue storing samples until OSP reinstates its program.

Once the SAFE kits backlog is eliminated, Oregon State Police says it will start to collect DNA evidence in property crimes cases.

Capt. Tim Fox says OSP is on track to finish testing before the end of the year, but other backlogs are growing as it has prioritized testing SAFE kits.

A May 2018 audit published by the Oregon Secretary of State's Office reaffirmed Fox's statement saying, "It is also possible other law enforcement agencies have been storing other DNA-related property crime evidence in the hope that it can be tested in the future. This creates a risk that a backlog of property crime evidence may be developing across the state that will be sent to OSP if and when DNA testing of property crime evidence resumes.”

According to June 2018 statistics provided by OSP, the Forensic Division backlog exceeds 8,581 requests.

Fox says OSP desperately needs people.

"Without personnel, we’re going to get backlogged again depending on where we put our resources and shift those to, that is just the way it is," he told KATU. "We just don’t have the personnel to do it."

The division's key performance measure, across all forensic disciples, is the percentage of analytical requests completed within 30-days of receipt, which is also a federal guideline. According to the state audit, the goal's target is to complete 80 percent within 30 days by 2023. However, performance is trending away from meeting the target because of an increased volume of requests, inadequate staffing and time spent training to keep up with new technology.

Superintendent Travis Hampton will ask the Legislature in the 2019 session to sign off on a 10-year, $64 million plan, mainly to increase the number of troopers by at least 200 and add another 40 sergeants. The additional hires, Hampton said, would put patrol staffing in the middle of the pack with state police agencies nationwide.

An analysis by OSP (slide 6) concluded that its ranks are second to the last in patrol staffing.

Fox says many local agencies and county sheriff's offices, especially in rural Oregon, rely heavily on the state agency. Unfortunately, he added, that OSP troopers were unable to respond to more than 11,000 calls for service because they simply did not have enough manpower.

"We're at a breaking point, we’re at a point where we can’t do it anymore," Fox said. "We don’t have the people, we don’t have the personnel, we don’t have the equipment."

KATU contacted several lawmakers and asked if they were aware of OSP's staffing and budget issues.

House Minority Leader Rep. Mike McLane told KATU he supports Hampton's request for additional funding.

"With a General Fund that will be over $20 billion in the next biennium, the Legislature must prioritize the safety of our communities and highways," McLane wrote in an email. "No one is more aware of this need than those of us who live in southern and eastern Oregon."

House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, said it’s early to talk specifics -- the budget won’t be considered until next year -- but she said she generally supports Hampton’s request.

She said the agency isn’t likely to see a return to its relatively high staffing levels of decades past, but she acknowledged that the state police budget has been depleted.

“There is a need for this,” she said. “It’s time to really get more troopers and more cars on the road. The lack of coverage on I-5 and other major thoroughfares in the state is, I would say, alarming," she said.

A Facebook Q and A with PPB Detective Scott Chamberlain:


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