Dec 15, 2014

In Austin, Evidence Pile Slows Burglary Investigations

By Wes Martin
For Reporting Texas

The odds aren’t good that burglary victims in Austin will see their belongings again.

Austin police solve fewer than 10 percent of the city’s residential burglaries, a little less than the national average of 12.7 percent, according to the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The low number of cases “cleared”–by indicting suspects or recovering stolen property–has persisted despite 20 years of declining crime rates. Police departments across the country face backlogs of unprocessed evidence because of personnel shortages. As evidence rooms fill up, the time needed to analyze fingerprints and DNA keeps growing.

For the Austin Police Department, solving burglary cases comes down to manpower: It’s lab technicians, not detectives, who are in high demand.

Three-quarters of Austin’s more than 6,300 burglaries last year were of residences, according to police data. The department has a backlog of 1,500 fingerprints, said Latent Print Supervisor Dennis Degler.

“For the past few years, we’ve done with four examiners when we should have had six examiners,” Degler said. “We haven’t been granted any new positions, and we haven’t had any new positions in the past decade.”

Two employees were laid off because of a decision to pursue stricter standards and accreditation from an international organization, Degler said.

“We’re trying to get away from the stigma that our people were not competency-tested, that we didn’t have good quality control,” Degler said. “When you’re talking about depriving someone of their freedom through forensic evidence, credibility’s important.”

The 25 employees of the department’s recently established Burglary Unit have continued to collect more evidence than the examiners can efficiently process.

The DNA team hasn’t been able to keep up with the mounting evidence, either, APD Sgt. Tamara Joseph said.

“If they have a crime against a person, like a homicide or assault, then that takes precedence over property crime,” Joseph said. “It delays the identification of our suspects, sometimes up to a year or more.”

Joseph said burglary detectives usually collect a lot of evidence from break-ins, but the time it takes to process it ends up crippling their clearance rate.

“It’s the same case with DNA,” Joseph said. “We do get [DNA in] a lot with burglaries, but locating victims and suspects after a year becomes more difficult.”

The Houston Police Department also faced low clearance rates a couple years ago, but has improved its rate of convictions and turnaround time for forensics evidence. In 2012, Houston’s City Council took the advice of a National Academy of Sciences report suggesting that forensics departments should separate from police branches.

The council established the nonprofit Houston Forensic Science Center, which took over forensic analysis from Houston police this year. The center’s board is appointed by the mayor and council. The move reduced the time it takes to process evidence, said Ramit Plushcik-Masti, a spokeswoman for the center.

“One of the many things that led to the NAS report was the backlogs and things of that nature. … Austin is definitely not alone,” Plushcik-Masti said. “This is a national problem.

“Forensics is lowest on the totem pole for police departments and usually gets the last of the funding,” she said. “We can do the turnaround far more quickly.”

The time needed for the center to process evidence is a matter of weeks rather than months.

“Once we begin testing a case, DNA analysis takes approximately two weeks,” said Robin Guidry, the center’s forensic biology section manager.

For now, Austin police’s Forensics Division still has to make do with what it is allocated.

Degler, Austin’s fingerprint supervisor, said he’s seeking to improve the credibility of his analysts in court by requiring stricter standards, though that move has led to the departure of two of his analysts.

“One of my examiners actually went to Houston, and that’s part of the problem with our division,” Degler said. “We keep losing people.”