Amid persistent backlogs at the Houston Forensic Science Center, the lab’s president, Peter Stout, has repeatedly blamed hiring challenges, mounting requests and other outside forces for the delays.
Now, attention is turning inward to Stout, the agency’s long-tenured leader.
Stout, one of the earliest employees of the city’s independent forensics lab, faces a call for his resignation from the Houston Police Department’s union leadership, which argues that he has been given ample time to fix backlogs that are hampering law enforcement.
But the union’s demand raises questions about who is responsible for Houston’s consistent backlogs, which have waxed and waned over the years. The lab, which processes thousands of pieces of evidence for HPD, is primarily funded by the city but governed by a board appointed by the mayor and confirmed by City Council.
Data released by the Houston Forensic Science Center showed roughly 4,000 evidence requests, equal to 15 percent of all requests, have gone more than a month without being fully analyzed and documented as of June. Some of the agency’s most common requests – including fingerprint analysis, firearms examination and drug analysis – are taking an average of six months to nearly two years to complete.
Stout said his agency minimizes the impact of the delays on victims by prioritizing violent crime cases over property crime investigations.
But Stout conceded that some cases, including potentially dozens of car break-ins, have gone unprosecuted because the statute of limitations expired before case evidence was processed. Union leaders also alleged this week that 32 cases in which police seized 40 to 70 pounds of marijuana at Hobby Airport went unprosecuted for similar reasons.
“As the director of the Houston Forensic Science Center, it is your responsibility to ensure that you have the amount of people trained and capable of performing tests,” said Ken Nealy, first vice president of the Houston Police Officers Union.
Union officials also noted that the backlog causes delays in prosecutions, leaving potentially innocent people sitting in jail as they wait for evidence to be processed.
“It puts a lot of people in flux,” Nealy said. “Then you have family members who would like to understand the outcome of their (relative’s) case and, unfortunately, sometimes investigators are waiting on those results so they can proceed forward with the next step in their investigation.”
Stout, for his part, hasn’t hidden the lab’s backlog problems. Multiple times each year, the lab produces information on case counts, the length of pending requests and turnaround time – all broken down by type of request.
The data shows that some backlogs have worsened in the past few years, such as drug and firearms tests. Others have eased, including fingerprint, DNA and sexual assault kit requests.
In a recent email sent to area stakeholders, Stout said the amount of backlogged requests is consistent with those in labs across the country, and expressed optimism that the backlog can be resolved or stabilized next year.
A national issue
Backlogs in forensic science labs are a problem in Texas and nationally, said Orin Dym, the director of the Bexar County Criminal Investigation Laboratory.
Bexar County provides analysis for the San Antonio Police Department and other law enforcement agencies in Bexar County and has received awards for its efficiency. Even so, Dym said, the lab has a backlog.
“Efficiency is about the amount of work being done and the cost of that work,” he said. “It doesn’t speak to the fact that more volume may be coming in than you can physically do.”
Dym declined to comment on problems at the Houston Forensic Science Center, but said there are internal steps crime labs can take to boost productivity.
Adding staff is one option, though the scarcity of experienced professionals and training requirements for inexperienced hires can complicate such efforts.
“Forensics is a relatively small field, a specialty field,” said Dym. Experienced analysts can be hard to find, and less experienced hires require significant training, even if they meet the educational requirements for the position.
For example, Dym said it can take a year or more to fully train a new hire in DNA analysis. Meanwhile, new cases continue to flow into the lab.
“We know in a year we’re going to make headway,” Dym said. “But then it’s going to take about a year plus to overcome that year of losing ground.”
A second option, Dym said, is exercising discretion internally by prioritizing certain evidence and relying on case acceptance policies.
“Some labs say, ‘OK, I only have so many resources,’” Dym said. “‘So we need to look at what evidence we’re accepting, what we’re going to work on, and what we’re going to give priority to.’”
For example, some labs decline to analyze evidence in misdemeanor crimes, Dym said. Others might be selective in the evidence they analyze, for example by testing a suspected heroin sample instead of an illegal Xanax pill.
However, Dym also cautioned that it can be hard to compare caseloads between departments. The Bexar County lab, for example, does not analyze fingerprints; instead, local law enforcement agencies handle such work in-house or contract with other, private labs.
‘The whole system falls apart’
Formerly part of the Houston Police Department, the Houston Forensic Science Center became an independent entity in 2014 following extensive accusations of mismanagement, inadequate quality controls and corruption.
But critics say the current backlog threatens not only the functioning of the lab, but the Houston-area criminal justice system at large.
“It is a meteor headed directly at Earth,” said Kim Ogg, the Harris County district attorney. “Our job is to protect the public and do it in a fair way. Absent evidence testing, the whole system falls apart.”
Ogg said the backlog of drug cases at the lab has nearly shut down drug enforcement and drug investigations because evidence isn’t returned in some cases for up to nine months. Prosecutors are also facing a 20-month delay on ballistics requests for capital murder and murder cases.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told KPRC 2 on Wednesday that the performance and management of the lab is under review.
“It’s a serious issue for us and it’s going to continue to be a serious issue,” he said.
For now, the Houston Forensic Science Center’s board of directors appears to be supporting Stout.
“We understand the concerns raised yesterday afternoon and will continue working to provide reliable and timely forensic services to the city of Houston,” said board chair Stacey Mitchell in a statement. “Under Dr. Stout’s leadership, we have always worked closely with our stakeholders to address issues of this nature, and we welcome the opportunity to sit down with HPOU to discuss their concerns.”
The Houston Police Department did not address the backlog in a statement to Houston Landing.
“As the Houston Forensic Science Center’s largest customer, we are committed to working with HFSC and our other criminal justice partners to find ways to prioritize cases and expedite requests to hold violent offenders accountable as we all seek justice for victims and families of those affected by violent crimes,” the department said.
However, the police union was unequivocal in its condemnation of the lab.
“Enough is enough,” said Nealy. “How long can we let this continue?”