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Civil Grand Jury: San Francisco Police Should Not Be Running City’s Crime Lab

Posted by Joseph Tully | Jul 26, 2016

Four-months-pregnant mother of five, 29-year-old Jessica Williams, was running from Sargent Justin Erb of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) when Sgt. Erb decided he wasn't going to let her get away. He shot her dead with a single bullet. Williams was unarmed.

If any DNA testing or other evidence of the murder of Jessica Williams has to be sent to the San Francisco crime lab, don't count on the results. Sgt. Erb's comrades themselves are running the DNA samples, labelling the evidence and reporting the findings.

With no scientific training – some with no college degree at all – cops are running the city's crime lab just as efficiently as the SFPD, whose racist text messages, litigious police shootings, and the forced resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr are just the tip of the SFPD failure iceberg.

San Francisco Crime Lab Should Function Independent of SFPD

According to a San Francisco Civil Grand Jury's recommendations released Wednesday, the crime lab should be separated from the SFPD to function in the criminal justice system as an independent entity. The report was compiled from data gathered over a six-month government investigation by a voluntary panel of 19 jurors, who interviewed forensic experts, various crime lab directors and technicians, defense attorneys and prosecutors.

The reputation of the SFPD crime lab is less than stellar, with its appalling array of cover-ups, errors, and lack of credentials. Rape kits sit backlogged on the shelf, case tracking protocols are outdated, DNA profiles lie around without entry into national databases, drugs go missing from evidence storage, and lab techs can't pass proficiency tests.

The lab's shortcomings not only cause outrageous expenses associated with rush orders, outsourcing and wasted samples, they endanger the freedoms – the very lives – of innocent citizens. It comes as no surprise that the 19 pages of criticisms conclude with a stark recommendation that the crime lab should no longer be run by the SFPD.

“Over the past several years, the credibility of the San Francisco Police Department Criminalistics Laboratory has been marred by scandals that have interfered with its mission to present accurate, unbiased, and convincing testimony in court,” the report states. The Grand Jury recommends complete autonomy and independent funding – using the city medical examiner's office as a model example.

Police-Run Crime Lab Is Dangerous Conflict Of Interest

We've yet to mention the ludicrous conflict of interest involved. According to the report, the lab is often biased in favor of the prosecution, not an objective scientific agency providing objective test results. This is seen particularly in cases like police-involved shootings or other police misconduct.

It is a good idea that the crime lab be overseen by a separate agency independent of the police department and I write about this in my California: State of Collusion book.

In my home jurisdiction of Contra Costa County, the crime lab views itself as independent. They are willing to sit down with the defense attorney and keep everything confidential, just as much as they would sit down with the prosecution. They view themselves as scientists, not as advocates. I think this would be a really good direction for San Francisco to go into.

SFPD Lacks Scientific Knowledge Required For Proper Crime Lab Function

The report also suggests the SFPD staff is too ignorant of scientific laboratory functioning to be running the crime lab. Though national standards advise crime labs to be run by trained scientists, the San Francisco crime lab is currently supervised by six or more rotating police captains who have little to no knowledge of scientific laboratory techniques.

“The crime lab suffers from being too closely managed by the Police Department,” the report explains. “It has been headed by a rotating succession of police captains who lack the scientific knowledge to understand the intricate workings of the Laboratory.”

The department's Internal Affairs unit handles the discipline, and problems are kept under wraps instead of being addressed constructively. Out-of-date procedures used for case tracking makes it difficult for prosecutors and defense attorneys to fully grasp the facts of their cases. Again, people's lives are at stake.

Steps the crime lab has taken to improve rape kit and DNA profile backlogs have not been enough, the report explains, though the Grand Jury did compliment the lab on its idea to outsource rape kits – yes, it's a good idea to get those out so innocent people don't end up behind bars with a lifetime sex offender registration requirement.

San Francisco Crime Lab Littered With Errors and Cover-Ups

A long list of past problems arising out of the crime lab are cited in the Grand Jury's report, including a lab tech who was told to cover up the fact that he mixed up DNA samples involved in a homicide case, and a biased lab worker who falsely testified the DNA found on two bicycles belonged to murder suspects in a separate case three years earlier (because that case involved bicycles too!).

In 2014, a crime lab tech and supervisor were fired after the tech ran an incomplete, error-filled DNA database search for a child molestation case. The search was inconclusive, yet the tech labelled it “definitive,” failing to report exculpatory evidence and shedding doubt on DNA data used in criminal cases. The lab worker had failed DNA lab proficiency tests, but her superior didn't notice.

The civil Grand Jury recommended that the shut-down Drug Analysis Division be reopened with the creation of the independent crime lab. Its 2010 closure was due to technician Deborah Madden stealing cocaine from the evidence storage room. All SFPD drug analysis is currently being outsourced to Alameda County.

Grand Jury Recommends Scientist Replace Police Captain While Awaiting Reform

As the lab struggles to keep up with standards required by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD), a new multimillion dollar laboratory facility is in the works, with a projected 2019 open date.

In my opinion the proposed solution of moving the crime lab under an independent citizen agency is a good solution, as opposed having the federal government step in. Keeping things local, in the hands of local people who will have accountability, I think is the solution.

San Francisco Mayor, Ed Lee, has not yet disclosed his decision on whether or not to separate the SFPD from the crime lab. The Grand Jury recommends that, until a decision is made, the police captain currently in charge of the crime lab be replaced by a professional scientist. Meanwhile, as the crime lab continues to be run by the SFPD, it's probably fine to just let Trump or Clinton count the votes.

At Tully and Weiss we question every bit of evidence offered by prosecutors as it is often unreliable or untruthful; either through mistake or intentionally mishandled. If you are charged with a crime in California, or anywhere, you should always select a criminal lawyer with the will and resources to deeply investigate your criminal charges – it makes all the difference. If you or a loved one has been the victim of the unreliable lab spotlighted here, give us a call to discuss your rights.

About the Author

Joseph Tully

Founding Partner, Criminal Law Specialist Our founding attorney, Joseph Tully, is sought out for his expert legal advice throughout California. With over 20 years of experience as a criminal lawyer, in 1000+ felony and other cases, Tully served as felony trial counsel as a public defender before...