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LAPD Print Check Sought

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss demanded an explanation Monday of why the Los Angeles Police Department has failed to check 6,000 fingerprints from unsolved murder cases against a national FBI databank.

Weiss, a leading critic of the LAPD last year after it mistakenly destroyed evidence in more than 1,000 unsolved rape cases, joined other politicians and crime victims in demanding improvements.

“I don’t know how you could tell a relative of a homicide victim that you have relevant fingerprints but you haven’t analyzed and compared them,” Weiss said.

“The No. 1 responsibility for local government is public safety,” Weiss said. “Is there any more fundamental public safety response than taking murderers and rapists off the street?”

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A digitized federal database that contains 44 million fingerprints was developed in 1999, allowing local law enforcement to search for matching prints in just two hours.

The LAPD started a unit dedicated to investigating so-called cold cases more than a year ago, but the efforts have been hampered by funding and staffing limitations in the department’s Scientific Investigation Division, which is struggling to process fingerprints for current cases, much less older ones. Two people now enter cold-case prints part time.

Marcella Leach of Justice for Homicide Victims said Monday she doesn’t care who is to blame. She said the department must better investigate cases that have hung over the families of crime victims.

“We should be ahead of everyone, but instead we are padding along behind,” Leach said. “You expect some Podunk town to not have that technology, but we’re in the high-tech belt. We are talking about Los Angeles.”

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Councilman Dennis Zine expressed similar frustration, saying there was no reason that fingerprinting, a cornerstone of police investigations, should be given short shrift when available technology could aid investigators.

“You see all these television programs like ‘CSI’ with state of the art technology,” Zine said. “We need to resolve this fingerprint situation. We need to have that happen for the detectives, the victims’ families and to track down these suspects.”

In addition to fingerprints, the Weiss motion asks the council to consider full funding for analysis of DNA from rape cases. Currently, the cold case homicide unit has been running DNA from rape cases through the $50-million “cold-hit program.”

That DNA is entered into a state database containing more than 210,000 DNA samples.

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LAPD Capt. Jim Tatreau said he was encouraged by the attention that cold cases and the crime lab have been getting, even if some publicity has been negative.

“It’s evidence that the council is serious about fixing it and fixing it now. We have a limited period of time before these suspects aren’t with us and more families will be denied justice,” he said. “The clock is ticking.”

LAPD Chief William J. Bratton said that, even with state-of-the-art technology due to come on line by September, staffing would be a “critical concern.”

Bratton said he was exploring with the mayor’s office and Councilman Weiss “avenues of how best we can resolve this matter.”

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Weiss said he would ask the City Council to seek a full accounting from the LAPD and the Police Commission on the extent of the problem -- including how many prints have not been tested -- and what will be done about it.

Police Commission President Rick Caruso said that, while there is no excuse for the prints’ not having been run through databases, the LAPD continues to grapple with shortages of civilian staffing and poor allotment of resources.

Police officials said they have authorization for 32 employees to enter prints into fingerprint databases, but have 12 vacancies.

“We haven’t been organized properly to fight crime in this city,” Caruso said. “The department has been organized to protect itself.”

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