LAPD backlogs lead to rationing fingerprint analysis

July 24, 2012 - 

A shortage of fingerprint experts at the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is taking a toll, as the department has to deal with backlogs numbering thousands of unanalyzed fingerprints.  The average waiting time for detectives to get print results from the lab is two or three months to a year, or none at all, depending on the urgency of the case.

Detective Michael Brausam of LAPD’s Central Division said: “In a perfect world, we’d get results back in a day or two.  The longer you leave these criminals out on the street; they’re likely going to be committing more crimes. And, if you do get a match on prints months later, it can be much harder to prove your case.”

But there is more to this shortage of fingerprint experts:  The LAPD Print Unit produces critical evidence against suspects but for a long time, it has struggled as an under-appreciated, troubled outpost of the Scientific Investigation Division, which covers DNA lab, firearms and narcotics analysts, electronics experts and other specialities.

There has been a freeze of personnel in 2009 and the LAPD’s Latent Print Unit saw 27 of its 97 analysts leave.  From the remaining analysts, 20 percent will be retiring. Their workplace is a single, cramped room in LAPD’s old headquarters where print specialists have to look for chairs and desks from abandoned offices.  While the city spent more than $400 million for a new police facility, no new lab was built for them.

Yvette Burney, commanding officer of the department’s crime labs, said that: “Part of the reason the fingerprint unit has been disregarded for so long stemmed from the relatively banal, tedious nature of the work it does compared with the dramatic, high-impact results of DNA analysis.”

“It’s not as sexy as DNA cases. There are no advocacy groups drawing attention to it,” she said. “But it’s no less important. We could solve a lot of crimes if we had more people.”

Although changes are scheduled, they will not happen soon.  Burney said a new print lab would be completed in January, despite construction delays.  It will be in another city facility.  Further, a new database system, which is currently being tested, would be completed by January.  This will allow the unit to better track investigations.

Due to the demands for prints, LAPD officials have employed a fingerprint rationing plan, taking into consideration the capacity of the department.

Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese said that under the plan: “Each of the LAPD’s 21 police stations and specialized divisions will be allotted only 10 cases each month in which fingerprints will be analyzed promptly.  All other cases will be placed on a waiting list. In addition, a handful of officers will be trained to collect prints at crime scenes in order to allow the print unit to spend more time in the lab analyzing prints.”

The rationing plan will apply only to property-related crimes.  Violent crimes will be handled separately.   As officials said, the approach will force the detectives to identify the most important cases.

Do you think LAPD’s plan to ration fingerprint analysis will do more harm than good in solving crimes?


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About T'ash Spenser

T’ash Spencer writes full time for She has 15 years experience in the field of regional planning and earned her Master’s of Science in Regional Development Planning and Management from the University of Dortmund, Germany. Follow her @tashspencer1.