A shortage of fingerprint experts at the Los Angeles Police Department has caused a large backlog of unanalyzed fingerprints, resulting in long delays to thousands of active criminal investigations.
The LAPD's beleaguered Latent Print Unit has failed to analyze fingerprints from about 2,200 burglaries, auto thefts and other property-related crimes, according to department figures. Detectives wait on average between two and three months to get print results back from the lab, LAPD officials said. In some cases, the delay can last more than a year and, in older cases in which the detectives have not pressed for analysis, prints are ignored altogether because the unit cannot keep up with the constant inflow of cases.
"In a perfect world, we'd get results back in a day or two," said Michael Brausam, a detective in the LAPD's Central Division. "The longer you leave these criminals out on the street, they're likely going to be committing more crimes. And, if you do get a match on prints months later, it can be much harder to prove your case."
And the prospect of the situation improving is bleak because of the city's ongoing hiring freeze.
Since the freeze in 2009, the fingerprint unit has lost 27 of its 97 analysts. Over the next five years, 20% of the unit is expected to retire, officials said. Additionally, furloughs that are part of the city's attempt to close a budget shortfall have exacerbated the problem, as have the neck and back injuries that analysts commonly suffer from long hours hunched over desks staring at prints through magnifying glasses.
Meanwhile, the demands on the unit continue unabated. Last year, detectives requested fingerprints to be collected at 19,000 crime scenes, and the pace so far this year is the same. As a result, LAPD officials have decided on a rationing plan that they hope will bring the workload in line with the unit's capabilities.
Under the plan, which the department will roll out in coming months, each of the LAPD's 21 police stations and specialized divisions will be allotted only 10 cases each month in which fingerprints will be analyzed promptly, Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese said. All other cases will be placed on a waiting list. In addition, said Albanese, a handful of officers will be trained to collect prints at crime scenes in order to allow the print unit to spend more time in the lab analyzing prints.
"We're taking in more than we can process," Albanese told the department's oversight board recently. "We have to look at our capacity."
The rationing plan will apply only to property-related cases and will not affect homicides, sexual assaults and other violent crimes, which are handled separately. Even for violent crimes, however, it typically takes six to eight weeks to produce fingerprint results, officials said.
In a recent interview, Albanese acknowledged that the fingerprint unit's capabilities will be exhausted just by violent crimes and the prioritized property crimes. Prints from the hundreds of other property crimes that occur each month may go unanalyzed.
"We're not going to get to them any time soon," he said.
Although the new system still will leave a large number of prints untested, officials said it will force detectives to identify the most important cases — those, for example, involving a serial burglar. Under the current system, members of the print unit have no easy way to determine if one case is more pressing than another or even whether a case has been solved without print analysis.
The work has hit bottlenecks at several points in the multi-step process of analyzing fingerprints. Prints from 1,605 cases, for example, are waiting to be uploaded by a technician into a large computer database where they are checked against the prints of millions of people previously arrested, according to LAPD figures.
Seventy-five other cases await the manual comparison required to confirm or reject the computer program's tentative matches and, in 452 more cases, analysts must still determine if the quality of the prints is high enough to make analysis possible.
In all, there are 2,825 cases stuck at some stage in the process, including prints from more than 660 cold cases in which detectives believe print analysis could now help solve the case.
Although it can produce crucial evidence against suspects, the print unit has long struggled as an under-appreciated, troubled outpost of the department's Scientific Investigation Division, which encompasses a modern DNA lab, firearms and narcotics analysts, electronics experts, and other specialties.
For decades, staff toiled in a single, cramped room in the LAPD's old headquarters building. When the city spent more than $400 million for a new police facility a few years ago, the fingerprint unit was forced to remain since no lab was built for it. Print specialists scavenged chairs and desks from abandoned offices and, today joke that at least they have no shortage of room to spread out.
The unit also had to endure difficult years marked by revelations of inadequate training, poor supervision, careless handling of evidence and infighting. In 2008, The Times reported on a confidential LAPD report about two women who had been falsely implicated in crimes after they were wrongly identified as suspects.
Subsequent revelations showed the unit had been plagued by problems for years. Analysts misplaced fingerprint evidence and failed to diligently verify matches made by others. The lab was operating without a written manual of policies and procedures.
Yvette Burney, commanding officer of the department's crime labs, said unqualified or problematic employees have either retired or been fired, and a review process has been put in place to guard against mistakes. And, despite construction delays, a new print lab is scheduled to be completed in January in another city facility. A new computer system, which will allow the unit to keep better track of investigations and more readily identify those requiring print analysis, is being tested and a manual is expected to be completed by January.
Part of the reason the fingerprint unit has been disregarded for so long, Burney suggested, stems from the relatively banal, tedious nature of the work it does compared with the dramatic, high-impact results of DNA analysis. When a similar backlog of untested DNA evidence from rape cases was uncovered in 2008, the department responded to pressure from outside groups and promised to clear the backlog. It raised millions of dollars in private donations and federal grants to pay private labs to test all the outstanding evidence.
No such salvation is on the horizon for fingerprinting, Burney said.
"It's not as sexy as DNA … cases. There's no advocacy groups drawing attention to it," she said. "But it's no less important. We could solve a lot of crimes if we had more people."