Created: 02/14/2013 5:00 PM KSTP.com By: Leslie Dyste
Problems at the St. Paul Police Department's crime lab are more serious than originally thought, and include dirty equipment, poor documentation, and the destruction of fingerprints that were wrongly classified as unusable, according to two independent reviews released Thursday.
Minnesota Public Radio News reported that lab workers destroyed at least one-third of all fingerprints after mistakenly saying they couldn't be identified. And in one drug case, Wikipedia was used as a "technical reference" by lab workers, the reviews found.
In addition, there was no clean area for reviewing and collecting DNA, and the lab stored crime scene photos on a computer accessible to anyone, consultants found. Lab conditions violated federal health and safety requirements.
Police Chief Thomas Smith said he's concerned and will make changes to improve lab work. He said the lab might eventually resume drug testing, but he didn't know when.
The lab suspended drug testing in July after employees said they didn't follow written procedures and may have relied on contaminated equipment. The revelation raised questions about thousands of drug convictions. The city hired two consulting firms to review the lab in August.
The consultants did not find that any cases were intentionally mishandled, or that crime scene fingerprints had been linked to innocent people.
One of the consulting firms, Integrated Forensic Laboratories, reviewed 100 controlled substance cases. In a report dated Jan. 31, it recommended the lab "cease operations" until police hire skilled professionals to run the lab.
"Errors were noted in the majority of case files examined," the Integrated Forensic Laboratories' report said, "ranging from minor typographical errors to misidentification of a controlled substance."
The report recommended "comprehensive retesting" of St. Paul cases by an accredited lab. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension lab has already retested more than 100 recent cases and found two in which the St. Paul lab incorrectly identified suspected drug evidence.
The other consultant was Schwarz Forensic Enterprises, which looked at fingerprint and crime scene units from Aug. 30 to Sept. 19, 2012. The firm examined 246 randomly selected fingerprint cases and found that more than 40 percent involved "seriously deficient work."
The report on the lab's fingerprint testing is dated Dec. 12, but was not released until Thursday. The lab's fingerprint unit has continued operating.
Schwarz Forensic Enterprises recommended that police hire a professional to serve as a quality manager. It recommended that the lab pursue accreditation by developing practices that meet scientific standards. It also recommended that St. Paul hire an outside agency to audit the lab after it makes changes.
The St. Paul City Council released more than $1 million in extra funding to the crime lab last week. The City Council did not have the reports in hand at the time. Police spokesman Howie Padilla says police were still reviewing the reports last week and they weren't ready for public viewing until now.
The police department plans to use the extra funding for equipment and building improvements, training, consultants and salaries.
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