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L.A. officials clear the way for LAPD to hire more DNA analysts

In an abrupt reversal of an earlier decision that drew the ire of rape victim advocates, city officials have cleared the way for the Los Angeles Police Department’s crime lab to hire more staff capable of DNA analysis.

The about-face amounts to a belated attempt by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Council members to salvage a city plan to eliminate a backlog of untested DNA evidence from rape cases and to prevent a new one from piling up.

Despite the renewed commitment to hire more DNA analysts, the bureaucratic wrangling has pushed back the city’s initial timetable for eliminating the backlog.

Last spring, despite a worsening fiscal crisis and near freeze on all city hiring, the City Council set aside $1.4 million to hire 26 staffers for the LAPD lab and cover their salaries for several months. The proposed hires were part of a three-year plan Villaraigosa and others unveiled in 2008, vowing at the time that it would remedy the chronic staffing shortfalls in the lab that had led evidence from more than 7,500 rape and sex assault cases to go untested.

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Following the council’s allocation for the new hires, however, political momentum behind the issue faltered as council members, the mayor and finance officials turned their attention to the city’s worsening budget crisis. Efforts by the LAPD to begin hiring were stymied by a panel of city officials responsible for approving any hiring during the ongoing fiscal emergency. In December, the panel -- called the Managed Hiring Committee -- notified the LAPD that its request had been rejected.

Council President Eric Garcetti said he and other council members had not been made aware of the hiring committee’s decision.

“It was a classic case of bureaucracy taking over policy,” he said in an interview. “I hope that we’ve learned our lesson. We re-victimize the victims of rape when something like this happens.”

News of the panel’s decision was first reported in The Times earlier this month and was met with anger from rape victims’ advocates, who had worked closely with the LAPD to remedy the backlog. They said LAPD brass and elected officials had made repeated public assurances that the hiring was on track.

At a meeting Friday night, amid mounting public pressure on the mayor and council members, the hiring committee reversed course, agreeing to authorize the 26 positions. LAPD officials, however, alerted City Council members this week that too much time had passed since the money was first allotted to complete such an ambitious hiring spree before the end of June, when the fiscal year closes and the city’s budget process starts anew. Since it takes several months to select and conduct background checks on new staffers, there is enough time to hire just 11 people, police officials said.

The failure to take advantage of the allotted funding for all 26 positions could deal a serious blow to the city’s plan to eliminate the DNA backlog. Elected officials will have to set aside funds in the coming years for the 15 people they failed to hire this year, as well as money to fill 10 additional positions that are needed -- a daunting challenge in the face of a budget shortfall that is predicted to reach roughly $400 million next fiscal year. Until those hires are made, however, the LAPD lab will be too small to keep pace with the roughly 90 new rape cases that need testing each month and, so, the DNA backlog will continue to grow, police officials have acknowledged.

“It’s hard to hear that less than half of the positions will be filled despite the fact that the LAPD had the money for all of them,” said Sarah Tofte, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has brought attention to the DNA backlog issue.

In an effort to make use of the entire $1.4 million that the council set aside, council members are expected to vote today on a motion by Garcetti that would allow the LAPD to put money allotted for the unfilled positions -- about $681,000 -- toward payments to private DNA laboratories the department has been using to test backlogged evidence. Through the use of private labs, the LAPD has been able to slash its backlog to about 1,300 cases. Funds to pay these labs, however, are all but gone, and the LAPD needs a total of about $2 million to test the remaining evidence, said LAPD Assistant Chief Michel Moore.

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joel.rubin@latimes.com


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