Forensic analysts at the five laboratories operated by the Oregon State Police Forensic Services Division test most of the forensic evidence in Oregon. Yet, each year, more evidence awaits testing because of the growing demand for the division’s laboratory services. We recommend some ways to better use analyst time, though these improvements fall short of meeting the growing demands for testing. We also found opportunities for the division to better use data and continue planning for a changing workload.
Our audit was substantially complete before allegations were publicly reported about an analyst tampering with evidence. Potential criminal behavior was not disclosed to us by division staff or others during our audit. A criminal investigation into these allegations is underway, and a workgroup appointed by the Governor is evaluating the division’s practices and procedures around evidence control.
The State Police Provides Forensic Testing
The Oregon State Police Forensic Services Division (division) is the primary provider of forensic testing in Oregon. Approximately 90% of its testing workload is for clients other than the Oregon State Police. The division includes five forensic laboratories statewide and employs 127 employees. In 2014, the division received about 29,500 requests for testing.
The Testing Backlog Is Growing
The National Institute of Justice defines a backlogged case as one untested within 30 days of submission to a crime laboratory. Oregon, like many forensic laboratories throughout the United States, has a backlog of evidence waiting to be tested.
Our audit found Oregon’s backlog has grown 90% since 2005, with around 3,700 untested requests as of January 2015. The division’s backlog has not dipped below 1,600 requests since 2009.
A number of factors affect the growing backlog. The demand for testing has increased 31% since 2005. During the same period, the number of division employees increased only marginally, and those analysts tested less evidence. According to the division, between January 2013 and January 2014, some laboratory director and analyst positions were vacant, and several analysts were on family leave or participating in training. These factors contributed to a large increase in backlog during that period.
Figure 1: Division Backlog
Casework Improvements Could Help Address Some of Backlog
There are many steps in testing evidence. The division receives evidence from law enforcement agencies, prioritizes it and assigns it to analysts for testing. Analysts apply scientific procedures and document the results. They then provide a report to the law enforcement agencies and attorneys involved in the case.
By investing in new technology and process improvements, the division has tried to reduce testing time while maintaining accuracy. Although the division has made these efforts, the backlog continues to grow.
We found some inefficient practices that if corrected could help the division make better use of analyst time. For example, there are often problems with the request forms law enforcement agencies fill out when submitting evidence to the laboratories. The division has guidelines for law enforcement to follow when filling out these forms and submitting evidence, but does not consistently enforce them.
The division prides itself on providing excellent customer service. There is a perception that enforcing evidence submission guidelines would be bad customer service. As a result, analysts tend to spend time following up with law enforcement to get information before they can begin testing. Additionally, the division is not involved with initial training law enforcement officers receive on how to collect and submit evidence.
Another improvement to casework that could help address the backlog is consistently using electronic notes. These could save analyst time during testing and the case review steps.
Analyst performance reviews are based in part on benchmarks like the number of requests they complete per hour. If an analyst closes a case without providing testing results, their performance numbers will decline. As a result, they sometimes work requests their clients have canceled, wasting valuable resources.
While these changes could help, they would not be sufficient to address the growing demand, year by year, for forensic testing experienced by the division.
Data and Planning to Improve the Division
The division is missing opportunities to reduce its backlog.
Managers of the five forensic crime laboratories could use data to better manage workload. Doing so could reduce the state’s overall backlog. For example, laboratories can do a better job of transferring requests to one another, depending on their capacity to test evidence. Because the division is not systematically reviewing laboratory capacity and transfer options, it is missing additional opportunities to address the backlog throughout the state.
Management has completed some elements of a comprehensive strategic plan but there are pieces missing. The division projects future workload and staffing needs, but does not solicit input from clients when developing these projections. In addition, the performance benchmark data the division uses are incomplete. These benchmarks do not account for time delays caused by incorrect evidence submissions or analysts working on canceled requests that do not serve a judicial purpose.
By continuing its process improvement efforts and better using data, the division can increase analyst productivity and potentially reduce the backlog. We recommend the division:
- Enforce its evidence submission guidelines and take an active role in the development and delivery of initial forensic training given to law enforcement officers.
- Consider using a business process improvement tool like Lean Six Sigma to evaluate casework and eliminate unnecessary procedures, implementing electronic notes, and developing a policy for analysts to follow when clients cancel requests for testing.
- Use data to implement a systematic review of workload transfers.
- Revise benchmarks to include canceled requests and time spent waiting for law enforcement to correct evidence submissions.
- Develop and implement a comprehensive strategic plan that includes considerations for laboratory facilities and staffing, and client input to forecast workload.
- Continue planning for changes in workload.
The agency generally agreed with our findings and recommendations. The full agency response is located at the end of the audit report.