In the basement of a 20-story building in downtown Houston, the sound of gunfire regularly rings out. And on a recent Thursday, the dampened thuds of shots were particularly frequent.
“Sounds like they got an auto,” said Peter Stout, president and CEO of the Houston Forensic Science Center, which processes evidence for the city’s police department.
The automatic rifle being fired that day is one of many hundreds that lab employees test fire each year to see whether the microscopic marks on the bullets match those found on bullets collected at crime scenes.
But the number of cases the firearms section is being asked to examine has far outpaced the number of employees able to examine them, causing a logjam that has slowed down hundreds of criminal cases.
The delays at the forensic science center have persisted for several years — much to the frustration of local prosecutors and judges.
“I’m telling you right now: Every judge, every prosecutor is hounding the lab and telling them that they’re taking too long with stuff,” said criminal defense attorney Paul Morgan.
Amid continued criticism from the Harris County district attorney’s office and claims of mismanagement from the Houston Police Department’s union leadership, Stout has argued that the amount of backlogged requests in Houston is consistent with those in other labs across the country.
While it can be difficult to compare crime labs to one another because of different budgets, staff sizes, testing capabilities and how they classify evidence, data gathered by the Houston Landing from accredited crime labs in some of Texas’ most populous counties shows that backlogs are not unique to Houston. And in some areas, the surveyed crime labs have even larger backlogs than the Houston Forensic Science Center.
The backlog at the Houston crime lab is measured by the number of evidence requests that have gone more than a month without being fully analyzed and documented. That number stood at nearly 4,000 in October, equal to 16.3 percent of all requests.
Other crime labs measure backlog by the number of outstanding cases, which can oftentimes have multiple evidence requests tied to them.
The Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas County, which has a much smaller budget and fewer employees than the Houston crime lab does, last month had nearly 5,300 unexamined drug cases. For comparison, the Houston crime lab had more than 1,600 outstanding drug examination requests.
In Bexar County, roughly 750 DNA requests are backlogged, almost twice as many as in Houston, not including those outsourced to other agencies. The Bexar County Criminal Investigation Laboratory, however, receives far fewer evidence requests per year than Houston does and has a fraction of the employees.
The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences’ crime lab, meanwhile, is nowhere near as backlogged as the Houston Forensic Science Center, though it handles fewer cases each year and doesn’t test for as many things as Houston does.
The county crime lab, which processes evidence for dozens of law enforcement agencies in the county, including the sheriff’s office, had a backlog of 278 cases as of September. A spokesperson for the lab said it could not accommodate the Houston Landing’s request for an interview.
Criticism for lengthy turnaround times
For the last several months, HPD’s union leadership has called for Stout to resign, arguing that he has had ample time to fix the backlogs. The district attorney’s office also recently said the backlog is causing major delays in prosecuting murder cases in the county.
“The leadership at the forensic science center is incompetent,” Doug Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said in a recent interview.
Data released by the center shows some of the agency’s most common requests – including fingerprint analysis, firearms examination and drug analysis – are still taking an average of six months to more than a year to complete.
Stout has said his agency minimizes the impact of the delays on victims by prioritizing violent crime cases over property crime investigations.
It’s unclear whether Houston and other labs around Texas are taking longer than they should in fulfilling requests. There is no industry standard for turnaround times, said Pam Sale, vice president of forensics for the American National Standards Institute’s National Accreditation Board, a subsidiary of the nonprofit organization that provides accreditation and training services.
“Accreditation requirements address the handling and storage of items to avoid deterioration, contamination, loss or damage to items while the items are waiting to be tested,” she added.
Perhaps the closest to an industry standard for the time it takes to complete evidence requests comes from Project FORESIGHT, a program sponsored by West Virginia University that allows crime labs across the country to voluntarily report their productivity metrics and costs.
The roughly 200 crime labs that reported their data last year said it took them anywhere from eight to 12 weeks to examine a firearm and write a report. It’s currently taking the Houston crime lab more than half a year to do that.
What’s happening in Houston is likely a snapshot of what’s happening across the country when it comes to backlogs, said Ted Yeshion, a criminal justice professor at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania.
“Right now, I’m sure backlogs are ranging anywhere from months to years, especially for non-violent offenses,” he said.
Staffing a major challenge
Stout said the backlog at his agency can be attributed to a combination of factors, some of which are out of his control, such as changes in state law that increased the time it takes to test marijuana, the time analysts spend in court giving testimony, and the rising cost of testing for certain evidence types. He also cited employee turnover as a major challenge.
“The entire system is struggling,” Stout said. “Nobody has enough resources. Everybody is frustrated. Everybody is looking for the relief of something that looks like an easy answer. But there just isn’t. These are sound bites to complex, wickedly difficult problems.”
Stout was hired in 2014 to lead the center soon after it separated from HPD and became an independent entity. While under the control of the police department, the crime lab faced accusations of mismanagement, inadequate quality controls and corruption.
Crime lab directors the Landing spoke with for this story cited staffing as a major reason their facilities are struggling to keep up with caseloads. They also cited how small the field of forensic science is.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics, a federal agency that offers a host of criminal justice statistics, said 14,300 people worked between the nation’s 409 publicly funded crime labs in 2014, the most recent year for available statistics. Stout said his crime lab employs about 1 percent of the roughly 1,000 firearm examiners in the world.
Orin Dym, director of the Bexar County Criminal Investigation Laboratory, said there is no shortage of people willing to work in entry-level positions at his agency. But the time it takes to get them up to speed is another matter, he said.
New analysts need one to three years of on-the-job-training before they can start producing casework, according to interviews with Dym, Stout, and the director of the Forensic Science Department in Austin. That training can come at a cost.
In Houston, Stout said it costs about $500,000 to train a new analyst. That’s including pay, benefits and the time employees have to dedicate to the trainee.
The annual turnover rate at the Houston Forensic Science Center has doubled in the last three years to about 12 percent. Stout said some of the 25 employees who left in that time period experienced burnout and switched careers.
Stout said the crime lab, which employs nearly 200 people, is expanding mental health and wellness resources to prevent burnout.
“Laboratories run on this ragged edge of capacity. All the time,” Stout said. “So we lose one person? It’s a huge gap because there is no excess capacity in anything.”
The rising cost of testing for certain evidence types has also presented a challenge for the Houston Forensic Science Center, Stout said. The lab is seeing increased demand for firearm testing and less for seized drugs. The former costs at least $5000 per test while the latter costs at least $300 per test.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has been outspoken about the backlogs at the Houston crime lab, arguing public safety is being put at risk.
She has also called upon outgoing Mayor Sylvester Turner and City Council to “fully fund” the crime lab, which receives most of its funding from the city but is governed by a board appointed by the mayor and confirmed by City Council.
The city over the past few years has provided the lab with nearly $5 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars, said Mary Benton, director of communications for Turner. Much of that money has gone toward training and outsourcing.
“The city of Houston has provided the Houston Forensic Center with the resources it is asked for along with nearly $500,000 in budget resources with more possibly to come,” she said in an email.
Ogg argues that until a long-term solution can be worked out, the Houston crime lab should outsource more evidence requests to other publicly funded crime labs and commercial ones. The lab is currently outsourcing about 20 percent of its backlog.
“In terms of meeting our obligation from the police department to the prosecution, we must have this evidence and the defendant is also entitled to it,” Ogg said. “We don’t control the scheduling of trials. When judges call us ready, we’re supposed to be ready.”
Stout said he has spoken with Ogg on multiple occasions and told her that there are only so many labs across the country that can handle excess work and that most cannot handle more than what his agency is already sending them.
“We saturate their capacity,” Stout said. “I get calls from other laboratory directors saying ‘Peter, can you not send something next month because I need to send something.’ Wherever we can, we’re outsourcing.”
Too many cases being filed?
Nicolas Hughes, a local criminal defense attorney and DNA consultant, contends that part of the reason why the Houston Forensic Science Center is so backlogged is that some cases that are being approved and filed by the district attorney’s office should not have been in the first place.
“I think some of the pressure (on the crime lab) is due to charges that a more seasoned prosecutor would have said, ‘We shouldn’t have even gone forward on this,’” said Hughes, who received references from Stout when he applied for graduate school.
“A laboratory only has so many resources and if those resources are taken up on cases that are ultimately kind of like a wild goose chase, that’s probably not the best expenditure of resources,” he added.
Ogg said the number of cases filed generally correlates with the crime rate and that her office does not have a quota. “We just file what meets the elements of the law and go from there,” she added.
Griffith, president of the Houston police union, said officers are just doing their jobs — arresting people who are suspected of committing crimes.
“If we have an offense and we have a suspect in custody, the public expects us to put them in jail,” he said.
Morgan, the criminal defense attorney, disagrees with the police union’s contention that the backlog and slow turnaround times at the lab are the result of Stout’s mismanagement.
“Peter is right. It is very difficult to get people to stay and respond to the level of quality to the amount of cases they get,” he said.
Training academy needed, director says
Stout, who has been credited with turning around an agency once considered the worst in the country, said the Houston crime lab is making progress in training new recruits. He’s optimistic the backlog can be resolved or stabilized next year.
“It’s taken 20 years to painfully, achingly, excruciatingly piece back together some trust in the quality of the lab,” he said. “I can’t sacrifice that for the immediate, horrible demand for results right now.”
To cut down on training time and increase interest in the field of forensic science, Dym of Bexar County said he would like to see the state fund a training academy that could be staffed part-time by existing lab personnel.
“An academy where we can share our resources to try and offset the overall burden of training and produce a well-experienced analyst by the time they’re done,” Dym said. “That has not gone past the stage of discussion mostly because we’re all trying to stay afloat as it is, let alone committing resources to another project.”