State Police crime lab erases backlog, officials say

Advocate staff file photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Shelves of unprocessed evidence slowed the wheels of justice for years at the State Police Crime Lab, frustrating law enforcement officials who increasingly depend on forensic testing to solve crimes.

But after sweeping changes in recent years — including an infusion of funding, new equipment and additional staff — the lab is clearing cases at an unprecedented pace and has erased a backlog that once topped 9,300 cases, authorities said.

State and local officials at a news conference Tuesday touted the lab as an invaluable asset to law enforcement that has gone from an embarrassment to the envy of other states.

“We are now working in real time to solve criminal cases,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said, adding that he made the overhaul of the lab a priority upon taking office.

Turnaround time — the time a case waits to be worked plus the time needed for analysis — has fallen from a peak of 1,000 days to less than 15 days, the governor said.

“Officials with Louisiana State Police report there is no other crime lab in the U.S. with processing capacity like that of the LSP Crime Lab,” a news release issued by Jindal’s office states.

Officials announced a similar milestone in 2011, after the lab’s DNA unit eliminated a backlog that, in 2007, had reached 1,700 requests. With state and federal funding, the DNA unit underwent a major makeover that improved workflow and changed the lab’s culture.

Analysts continue to see surging demand for DNA testing in investigations ranging from murders to car break-ins. Indeed, a recent spike in property crime cases prompted the lab to limit larger agencies to 10 submissions per month in that category.

Jindal said Tuesday that more work remained at the lab, even after the state made drastic improvements to the DNA unit. Others sections of the lab were still buried under stacks of unresolved narcotics, fingerprint, firearms and toxicology cases.

“We implemented a backlog reduction plan for these sections by adopting management practices often found in the private sector to increase productivity,” Jindal said.

In the lab’s narcotics section, new policies reduced the number of analyses by nearly 10,000 a year. In the fingerprints section, average turnaround time was cut to less than two weeks. And in narcotics cases, the lab benefited from new instruments allowing enhanced detection, officials said.

Before the changes, the overwhelmed lab had to outsource evidence to other labs in many cases — a practice that has since been discontinued.

“If you’re a taxpayer, you should be a very happy person today,” said Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley, whose agency is among the lab’s most frequent customers. The overhaul at the lab represents “a unique model of government,” Wiley said, in which a backlog was reduced amid an increase in cases.

The State Police Crime Lab serves agencies around the state but receives the majority of its requests from Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes. The lab has benefited from local law enforcement agencies paying for some of their own workers in the lab.

The Baton Rouge Police Department, for instance, has two forensic scientist positions at the lab.

“We hire them and pay their salary and LSP trains them,” said Lt. Don Kelly, a police spokesman. “This was done because we’re probably the LSP crime lab’s biggest customer, and having our own dedicated scientists there helps expedite testing on our cases without draining LSP’s resources.”

East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden said the capital city has benefited because “criminals are not still out on the streets and preying on our citizens while evidence sits on a shelf or in a warehouse waiting to be analyzed.”

District Attorney Hillar Moore III said the lab’s hardworking staff has “brought people to justice that never thought they would be caught.” He said police submitted DNA evidence in a case last week that has already been “matched to perpetrators that we will eventually prosecute,” underscoring a turnaround time far shorter than in years past.

“I can guarantee you that other DAs around the country are envious of this crime lab,” Moore said.