Oregon State Police: Forensic Division Has Taken Appropriate Steps to Address Oregon’s Sexual Assault Kit Testing Backlog

Report Highlights


Oregon State Police (OSP) has taken appropriate steps to manage an influx of Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence (SAFE) kits sent by local law enforcement agencies after Melissa’s Law passed in 2016, including adding staff and equipment, changing how they prioritize the testing of DNA evidence, and using more efficient technologies for DNA processing. Many of these changes occurred too recently to definitively determine whether they will successfully eliminate the remaining backlog. However, the actions taken are aligned with best practices and OSP officials estimate they will largely eliminate the backlog by the end of 2018.

Background

The Forensic Services Division of OSP provides Oregon’s only full-service forensic lab system. The intent of Melissa’s Law is to prevent a future SAFE kit testing backlog at local law enforcement agencies by mandating all non-anonymous kits be sent to OSP for testing.

Purpose

The purpose of this audit was to report on whether OSP has taken actions consistent with statute and best practices to address the SAFE kit backlog.

Key Findings

  1. OSP has complied with Melissa’s Law by increasing lab capacity and reporting results to legislators on efforts to reduce the SAFE kit backlog.
  2. OSP is following best practices outlined by the National Institute of Justice for forensic labs that process SAFE kits. For example, OSP’s “high-throughput” approach to obtaining DNA profiles from SAFE kits is recommended for decreasing kit backlogs.
  3. The agency’s decision to suspend DNA processing of property crime evidence to focus on SAFE kits could lead to a backlog of DNA evidence of this type at local law enforcement agencies. Local law enforcement agencies are eager for OSP to resume accepting DNA evidence for property crimes.
  4. As of January 2018, many of OSP’s capacity-building and process improvement efforts have been implemented. Since then, OSP has shown substantial improvement in the number of kits processed each month. Also, there has been a significant reduction in the statewide backlog. A 2017 survey of local law enforcement agencies found approximately 1,100 kits needing testing, down from approximately 4,900 in 2015. For these reasons, OSP believes it can eliminate the backlog by the end of 2018.

Recommendations

We recommend that OSP publicly post backlog status reports, examine options for a statewide SAFE kit tracking system, and plan for reintroducing DNA testing in property crimes.

OSP generally agrees with our recommendation. The agency’s response can be found at the end of the report.

Read full report here.

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Oregon State Police Forensic Services Division: Some Strategies to Help Address Delays in Evidence Testing

Executive Summary


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.

Read the full report here

The State Police Provides Forensic Testingosp pic 6

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.

osp pic 2Our 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

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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.

osp pic 3By 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.

osp pic 4Analyst 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.

Recommendations

osp pic 1By 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.

Agency Response

The agency generally agreed with our findings and recommendations. The full agency response is located at the end of the audit report.

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