In August 2018, amid relentless gun violence sweeping the city, the Baltimore Police Department’s forensic lab dramatically shifted its priorities: The lab began processing every recovered firearm for fingerprints and DNA instead of testing weapons on a case-by-case basis.
The policy change came at the request of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, which has come under pressure to tackle gun crime and believed forensic testing would bring stronger evidence in gun possession cases.
But the crime lab’s leadership objected to the move, and in 2020 the lab produced a report that found the policy to be, by most metrics, a failure. The remarkably candid report argues that the policy has done little to benefit gun-related prosecutions, but has helped to explode backlogs in homicide and sex offense cases.
The Daily Record obtained a copy of the report through a request under the Public Information Act.
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The report also suggests the crime lab has been forced to slow forensic testing across entire violent crime categories, including carjackings and robberies, to handle the massive influx of firearms requiring a treatment. The new focus on firearms did not distinguish between violent crimes committed with firearms and non-violent cases, such as possession of firearms.
“Backlogs have increased exponentially, investigative (DNA) matches have decreased, and specific types of cases are no longer routinely processed,” wrote Kenneth B. Jones, associate director of the Medical Laboratories Section. who authored the 2020 report. “Before the 2018 policy change, that was not the case.”
The firearms testing policy was rescinded earlier this year, said Rana DellaRocco, chief of the BPD’s forensic laboratory section. Firearms are again handled on a case-by-case basis; cases of non-violent possession and found weapons are no longer prioritized, she said.
However, it remains unclear why the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office was able to exercise such control over crime lab operations in 2018 and why police leaders ignored concerns from lab management for implement the policy.
Chief Attorney Erin Murphy said the state’s attorney’s office made the request because defense attorneys have often pointed to the lack of DNA testing in gun cases before juries. (Murphy was not working in the office when the policy was implemented, but worked closely with DellaRocco when the mandate was revisited this year.)
“It’s a very easy argument to tell juries, ‘There’s no DNA evidence or CSI type evidence,'” Murphy said. “Jurors are discriminating. Juries are even more demanding in the city of Baltimore, so I think it was an effort to get everything we could on every gun case.
Murphy and Lindsey Eldridge, spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department, said the policy change was a collaborative effort between the department and the state’s attorney’s office.
In an interview, DellaRocco attributed the state’s attorney’s office request to the “CSI effect,” the belief that juries expect to see forensic testing in criminal cases due to the influence TV shows like ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’.
“Some of these things start as an anecdote and then we have data to push back, but partners sometimes don’t, and they have these feelings or the feeling that it works, but they don’t really understand that it doesn’t doesn’t work,” DellaRocco said.
In response to PIA’s request from the Daily Record, the Baltimore Police Department said that in 2018, then-Assistant State’s Attorney Charles Blomquist raised concerns with the Baltimore Police Commissioner. at the time, Gary Tuggle, that prosecutors were losing gun cases because the crime lab was not performing DNA testing on a regular basis. on firearms.
“Despite the lack of data to support this claim and despite objections from crime lab management, it was decided that (handgun violations) would be the number one case type for the lab,” wrote BPD’s Office of Legal Affairs in PIA’s response letter.
“After several years of implementing the warrant, the crime lab conducted a study on its effectiveness. The conclusion that has been drawn is that this is a major drain on the laboratory’s resources and produces no benefit for the legal cases which are apparent. »
Tuggle served as acting police commissioner for less than a year before being replaced by current commissioner Michael Harrison.
Blomquist was the head of the division that prosecuted the gun cases when he made the request in 2018, according to BPD. He is now a judge of the Baltimore City Circuit Court. A judiciary spokesman, Bradley Tanner, declined a request for comment on Blomquist’s behalf.
The city’s crime lab has been plagued with problems and backlogs for years. In the space of a few days last year, the lab witnessed two major scandals: first, a lab supervisor came forward and claimed that the crime lab was sitting on thousands of untested fingerprints in non-violent crimes, including burglaries. Then the department told the Baltimore Sun that month of work by a firearms examiner had been compromised and could not be used in business.
Arrears are not unusual in crime labs, which have received an increasing number of requests for DNA analysis in recent years, according to a 2019 report from the US Government Accountability Office.
In Baltimore, various factors have contributed to backlogs and a tendency to focus on firearms. In 2017, the crime lab’s forensic biology unit took responsibility for processing a backlog of evidence from the latent print unit, according to the BPD’s 2020 report.
In July 2018, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began requiring stricter timelines for processing firearms soon after they were submitted to labs.
The combination of these factors “has created the situation where firearms processing is now prioritized over all other cases and case types,” Jones wrote in the report.
The report makes it clear, however, that the test-all-weapons policy has been a major drain on lab resources, forcing technicians to redirect scarce resources to thousands of firearms cases that would otherwise have been a low priority.
Other cases suffered. According to the report, the backlog in preliminary forensic screening of homicide cases jumped by more than 200% from July 2018 to December 2019. The backlog in screening for sexual offenses jumped by 80%.
The backlog of DNA tests for homicide cases has increased by 56%, while that for sexual offenses has decreased by 14%.
In total, the lab’s total testing backlog increased by 111%, or 156 cases, and its DNA testing backlog jumped by 41%, or 1,073 cases, according to the report.
The time it took to test sexual assault forensic exams, known as SAFE kits, also increased while the firearms testing mandate was in place. According to a report on sexual assault investigations that the BPD produced as part of its federal consent decree, the median number of days it took for a SAFE kit to be processed nearly doubled, from 112 days in 2019 to 202 days in 2020.
The sexual assault investigation report attributed the slower results to three factors: the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, the time it took to train two new recruits, and “a continued mandate for the lab to work on processing evidence handgun violations”.
The gun-testing policy also didn’t work from the prosecution’s perspective, according to the 2020 BPD report.
Only about 6% of handgun cases processed result in charges. Of those, less than half resulted in a guilty verdict, according to the report, while the remaining cases were dismissed or had no clear outcome.
“More than 100 of the 159 cases forwarded and processed for DNA had no clear forensic purpose or outcome,” Jones wrote in the report.
Crime lab management expected the gun testing policy to have limited success. The lab had already undertaken a study in 2012 that found that forensic testing of firearms did not produce enough results to justify using the lab’s resources, except in some cases.
That study concluded that the lab should adopt a “more focused and restricted approach to firearms testing” — a recommendation that was overruled when prosecutors sought the firearms testing warrant in 2018.
The 2020 report concluded that the policy of testing all weapons should be reversed to give the crime lab more freedom to test other important cases.
“The value of adjusting tactics within the forensic biology unit to re-perform the frequent testing of carjackings, assaults, robberies and other similar types of cases should not be underestimated,” Jones wrote in the report.
“Many homicides in the city begin like these other types of cases or are perpetrated by violent repeat offenders who may commit them on a regular basis,” he wrote. “Pushing these cases aside in favor of types of test cases with obviously low-value results is counterproductive.”