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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Audits in the News: January

Audits in the News: Oregon State Police crime lab audit earns coverage in statewide media.

We here in the audits division are proud that the work we do makes a difference. Our work attracts the attention of the legislature, statewide news sources, and even local media outlets. Local media coverage of our audits is just another way we communicate with the people of Oregon about the work that we’re doing on their behalf to make government better. This is part of an ongoing series of posts rounding up recent instances in which the Oregon Audits Division makes a cameo in the local news.

Despite two holidays coming and going since our last “Audits in the News” blog post, the division has had a busy few weeks!

The division released its performance audit on the Oregon State Police’s Forensic Services Division, whose five labs and 127 employees are responsible for the bulk of forensic testing among Oregon law enforcement. The audit found that the division was struggling with an enormous backlog, which has only increased over the last decade.

You can read the complete audit here.

Statesman Journal – State finds huge spike in crime lab backlog

Read the story here.

“The backlog at Oregon crime labs has increased 90 percent since 2005, according to an audit from the Oregon Secretary of State, released Tuesday. Overall testing demand has grown more than 30 percent. DNA and fingerprint testing make up the majority of the backlog.”

Portland Tribune – Audit: Increased demand swamps state forensic testing lab

Read the story here.

“A backlog of untested forensic evidence at Oregon State Police laboratories has ballooned by 90 percent in the past decade, fueled by increased demand, inefficient practices and staff shortages and vacancies, according to a secretary of state audit.

The Oregonian – State crime lab’s backlog of untested evidence nearly doubled in last decade, audit finds

Read the story here.

“The backlog of untested evidence in Oregon’s state crime lab has nearly doubled in the past decade, with 3,700 pieces of evidence submitted by police agencies as of January 2015 that were awaiting analysis for more than 30 days … The lab’s workload has increased substantially during the past 10 years, while its staffing levels have not. During that time, some lab director and analyst positions were vacant, and several staff were on family leave or in training, contributing to the delays in analysis, according to a state audit released Tuesday.

Bend Bulletin – Crime lab audit warns of growing backlog

Read the story here.

“An audit of Oregon State Police crime labs points to a growing backlog of evidence waiting to be tested. Auditors with the Oregon Secretary of State’s office found it takes an average of 65 days to complete testing on a submitted piece of evidence, while the number of cases in which it takes at least 30 days to complete testing has jumped 90 percent since 2005.”

Oregon Public Broadcasting – Audit: Oregon State Crime Labs Should Plan For Rising Caseload

Read the story here.

A new audit by the Secretary of State found that due to inefficiencies and inadequate staffing, it takes the Oregon State Police forensics division 65 days on average to analyze evidence like fingerprints and DNA. That’s twice as long as the industry standard for timely service, according to the new audit.”

Two other audits that were recently released, which included the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Employment Department, will be featured in next month’s roundup.
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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

osp pic 7

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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Audits in the News: Sept. 28

We here in the audits division are proud that the work we do makes a difference. Our work attracts the attention of the legislature, statewide news sources, and even local media outlets. Local media coverage of our audits is just another way we communicate with the people of Oregon about the work that we’re doing on their behalf to make government better. This is part of an ongoing series of posts rounding up recent instances in which the Oregon Audits Division makes a cameo in the local news.

The Oregon Audits Division recently released its audit of the Oregon State Hospital, which found that management has taken significant action to improve safety and patient care, both for the patients and staff. However, more action is still needed to continue improvements and promote patient recovery. You can read the full audit here.

Our last blog post had several stories from media who reported on the audit, but more have been published since.

Willamette Week – Nursing Staff at Oregon State Hospital Face Rise in Patient Violence

Read the story here.

An audit released this month says that staff at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem are coping with increased violence from mentally ill patients.

Aggressive events, which are logged electronically by OSH, rose from 701 in 2013 to 822 in 2014, according to Sandy Hilton, who managed the audit.”

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