State crime lab getting even slower at processing evidence

Florida’s crime lab is getting even slower at processing forensic evidence as the state’s top law enforcement agency continues “hemorrhaging” workers who leave to find better-paying jobs in other states or counties, state officials say.

In the latest quarterly performance reports, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement showed that in almost every category, the agency is slower at processing evidence than it was in the previous quarter, and is demonstrably worse than a year ago.

For example:

▪ Extracting latent prints took 87 days to process from January to March. By the end of June, it took 91 days.

▪ DNA and biology samples that took 85 days to process earlier in the year, are now taking 88 days.

▪ And processing computer evidence, which took 113 days to move early in the year, now takes 119 days. Last year during the same period, it took 84 days to process computer evidence. The agency’s stated goal is 70 days.

“The turnaround times are going in the wrong direction,” FDLE commissioner Richard Swearingen told a key House committee this week in pitching for increased funding to fight the problem.

The Times/Herald reported in September that delays in getting lab results are forcing sheriffs and other local police agencies to turn to costlier ways of dealing with requests. Some counties have created their own crime labs to process evidence while others use private labs, despite significantly higher costs.

Swearingen on Tuesday acknowledged that “our vacancy rates are impacting our ability to respond to local law enforcement forensic requests.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has been an outspoken advocate of improving crime lab turnaround times. A month ago, she held a news conference in Tampa to point out that thousands of rape kits are sitting in police evidence rooms around the state that have never been submitted to FDLE for analysis. If not for crime lab backups, the state could be more aggressive in processing rape kits to collect DNA samples that could be used to solve other crimes or sexual assault cases, Bondi said.

Over the past two years, average turnaround times for all lab requests have gotten worse in nearly every quarterly report that FDLE has provided to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet to assess the agency’s performance.

Swearingen said the problem is clear: staff turnover. “We are losing lab analysts at an unsustainable rate,” he said.

He blamed the “hemorrhaging” of lab analysts and their supervisors on low pay. In his formal budget request to the Legislature, Swearingen said he has lost 107 crime lab analysts and supervisors out of a staff of 297 in the last five years. He said almost 40 percent of those who have left cited better pay at other labs.

FDLE analysts make just under $41,000 on average, according to the agency. That is nearly $20,000 less than what some county crime labs pay in Florida.

Replacing lost expertise is particularly difficult for the crime lab, he said. It can take two years to fully train new workers, making it difficult to catch up on a worsening backlog of lab requests.

Swearingen told the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday that he is seeking almost $4 million to provide pay raises to 297 workers. That would give $10,000-a-year pay raises to crime lab analysts and $12,000 raises to senior lab analysts. Those raises would make FDLE competitive with other agencies, Swearingen said.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com. Follow @jeremyswallace