Jan 20, 2014
06:29 AM
Connecticut Today

The Cleanup of the Connecticut Forensic Science Lab Continues

The Cleanup of the Connecticut Forensic Science Lab Continues

Sitting behind the desk in his office at state headquarters in Middletown, just a few weeks away from retirement, state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection (DESPP) commissioner Reuben Bradford says he’ll be able to retire a little easier now that one problem he inherited is on its way to being stamped out by this year’s end: The Connecticut Forensic Science Laboratory, which once had a case backlog skyrocketing into the thousands, hopes to wipe out that backlog in 2014.

“When I came, among the many problems I confronted, the lab was one of the main issues,” says Bradford. “It does give me a sense of satisfaction that it’s been straightened out, it’s in good hands. We can’t take our focus off it totally, but we can turn our attention to other issues.”

Bradford says he owes that peace of mind to Crime Lab director Dr. Guy Vallaro, as well as every person working in the lab who now have “bought into the concept” of serving the public. Vallaro was appointed director in December 2012, taking over a facility that was under heavy public scrutiny. At that time, a DNA case waiting to be analyzed at the lab faced a backlog of 2½ years. Vallaro is now optimistic that no backlog—meaning a case is at the lab 60 days or fewer—will soon be the norm. “We set the bar kind of high but I think we will go on to achieve it,” he says.

The crime lab lost its accreditation in 2011 from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors after critical federal audits of the lab, which noted the backlog of cases—3,812 in DNA cases alone. That staggering number was a 400 percent increase for that type of case over the previous six years, though the number of lab scientists dropped by 10 percent in that period.

The overall workload for the lab had increased 25 percent since 2005.

In response, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy created a 17-member working group to try to address the backlog and other issues with the lab. The accreditation was earned in early 2012, prior to Vallaro’s appointment.

“I think [the backlog] is something that got out of control without proper oversight,” says Bradford. He says problems have been resolved because the state provided the proper resources to do so—including increased funding and 48 new staff members—that weren’t available previously.

The lab has also been moved under the auspices of the DESPP after being part of the State Police, which Vallaro describes as “a customer.” “It’s important that the lab is separate from law enforcement,” he says.

As the audit numbers suggested, the amount of work being sent to the lab, coupled with the low staffing levels, caused major problems. “I don’t think anyone realized the volume that was going to come through that front door,” says Vallaro.

In January 2012, guidelines limiting the number of specimens as well as the type of crime they could be submitted for were sent to local police, which reduced incoming evidence by 42 percent. As the lab catches up, Vallaro hopes the restrictions will be lifted.

Submissions are still lower than they were three to four years ago. Part of that is due to the new regulations, but it’s also because agencies, unhappy with the backlog or not getting results, stopped sending them to the lab. “The expectation is when we start meeting the needs, it’s going to go back up,” says Vallaro.

There was also a “CSI effect” years ago when the backlog started to add up—when DNA testing was being so highly publicized on television as the answer to everything, that too many cases were being sent to the lab.

In addition to extra staffing, the crime lab’s productivity is up. Vallaro says that each individual is expected to take on a certain number of cases. In the case of DNA testing, the lab used to employ a “passive” method of allowing scientists to take on cases as they came—now cases are assigned and given deadlines.

While striving for higher productivity and faster results, Vallaro acknowledges that there will be questions about accuracy. “Quality is our default,” he promises, pointing out that the lab now has two employees dedicated to quality control. “You cannot diminish quality. We’re invested in quality.”  

The lab was also given $2 million to outsource certain processes in a case. While the lab still starts the work and identifies what should be tested, it sends items to the outsourced laboratory. Scientists get the raw data back, then make their own analysis and conclusion.

Completing more cases and eliminating the backlog makes people happy, Vallaro says—but it also serves a greater purpose in allowing them to submit information to state and federal DNA databases, which aids in solving crimes more quickly. In the end, however, it all goes back to serving the public.

“We have a very dedicated staff,” says Vallaro.  “We constantly talk about the victims, and we’re well aware that there are people out there that are waiting for these results, so it’s important to us.”

 

The Cleanup of the Connecticut Forensic Science Lab Continues

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