By Kristina Rose, Acting Director, National Institute of Justice, Washington, D.C.
know many Police Chief readers have heard about a recent study funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) that looked into forensic evidence that had not been sent to a crime laboratory for analysis. I am grateful for this opportunity to share the findings of that study in more detail.
Based on a survey completed by more than 2,000 of the nation’s police departments, we know that, as of year-end 2007, forensic evidence had not been sent to a lab in the following:
- 14 percent of open homicides
- 18 percent of open rapes
- 23 percent of open property crimes
Although those numbers may seem startling at first glance, it is important to understand what the study did not reveal: how many of these open cases could actually be solved—or yield solid investigative leads—if evidence in them was analyzed.
There are, of course, many reasons why evidence collected from a crime scene is not sent to a lab. Additional investigation might indicate that the evidence would not help identify a perpetrator or solve the crime. Evidence may never be sent for analysis if charges against the alleged perpetrator are dropped or if someone pleads guilty to the crime. In rape cases, analysis of sperm or other evidence may not be considered probative if the issue is consent.
That said, the survey does give a clearer overall picture of how much evidence nationwide is not sent by police departments to their jurisdiction’s crime lab. In another study, NIJ is now looking at a particular jurisdiction to determine how many unsolved cases that contain forensic evidence would benefit from forensic testing.
Is There a Knowledge Gap?
Everyone who works in the criminal justice system is aware of the large backlog of evidence awaiting analysis in U.S. crime labs. However, NIJ’s recent survey (which was conducted by RTI International) looked at a different issue: biological evidence (including DNA, fingerprints, firearms, and tool marks) in open cases that is in law enforcement agencies and had not been sent to a crime lab.
The findings of the survey suggest that some law enforcement officers may not fully understand the potential value of forensic evidence in developing new leads in a criminal investigation. Here, for example, are the reasons cited for not sending forensic evidence to the lab (departments could check all that applied).
What does it mean that 44 percent of police departments listed “no suspect” as one of the reasons they did not send forensic evidence to the lab? Does this indicate a knowledge gap? Could it suggest a misunderstanding in some departments that forensic evidence helps only in the actual prosecution of a crime, but not in developing new investigatory leads?
DNA evidence can identify a suspect through the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), even when investigators have not identified a suspect. Similarly, latent fingerprints left at a crime scene can identify an unknown suspect through automated systems like the national Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS).
The findings about why evidence is not sent to the lab may suggest that some investigators do not realize the full potential of laboratory analysis. They may not realize, for example, that a lab report might point to new areas to investigate or even identify a new suspect. CODIS did not become operational until the late 1990s and, therefore, might still be relatively new to some departments—especially smaller departments that do not have resources for training and new equipment. Targeted training may be a solution.
Another finding from the survey reveals that 15 percent of the police agencies did not send evidence to the lab if a prosecutor had not requested it. As the researchers note in their report (available at http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/228415.pdf), some jurisdictions may be trying to avoid a seemingly unnecessary use of lab resources by asking the prosecutor to first indicate that a case will, in fact, go forward.
Such cost-benefit analyses are made every day, of course, as law enforcement agencies triage cases. But, the existence of such a policy could be decreasing the opportunity, for example, of a “no suspect” CODIS hit.
Here are two other significant, if not surprising, findings from the survey:
- 11 percent of police departments reported they did not send evidence to the lab because they
felt a backlog prevented timely analysis
- 6 percent reported that their lab simply was not accepting new evidence, due to a backlog
Evidence Tracking and Retention
One of the goals of the survey was to find out how many of the nation’s police departments have a computerized information system capable of tracking their forensic evidence inventory.
The survey revealed that less than half of the law enforcement agencies in the country (43 percent) have such a system. The news was better for large departments (more than 100 officers), where three out of four said they do have a computerized tracking system, although some of the larger agencies reported difficulty in answering questions about unsolved rape and property cases. This could be that in larger agencies, property crimes are typically investigated (and therefore, case status is maintained) at the precinct level; this may also be true for rape cases.
With respect to evidence retention policies, the survey found significant disparities from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Only 46 percent of the police departments said they had a policy requiring the preservation of biological evidence in cases in which the defendant was found guilty; 38 percent said they had no such policy; and nearly 16 percent said they were unsure if they had such a policy.
Where to from Here?
Again, the survey did not attempt to answer the question of how many unsolved cases with forensic evidence might be solved—or yield investigative leads—if evidence currently in police custody were to be sent to a lab. This certainly merits more investigation and, indeed, the researchers recommended a scientific, “best-practices” look at how, considering current resource-realities, such cases should be prioritized for testing.
The survey also did not address cases in which evidence had been analyzed in the past, but which now—with the benefit of larger offender databases and new forensic technologies—might be solved or yield investigative leads. For example, a latent print run through IAFIS several years ago with no successful match could yield a hit now.
The researchers made a number of recommendations to tackle issues revealed in the survey:
- More training for police on the benefits and use of forensic evidence, including guidelines or protocols on prioritizing cases for lab analysis
- Creating (or, where they exist, improving) computerized systems to track and monitor forensic evidence
- Standardizing evidence retention policies across the country
- Improving storage capacity for analyzed and unanalyzed forensic evidence
- A system-wide approach to improve coordination among the police, forensic lab, and the prosecutor’s office; this could include dedicated staff for case management, regular team meetings for case review and computerized systems to allow information sharing across these agencies
In addition to thinking about how some of these recommendations might be implemented, it may be important to pay greater attention to mid- to small-sized police departments. The survey revealed, for example, that police agencies with fewer than 50 officers accounted for nearly 3 out of 10 unsolved rape cases that contain unanalyzed forensic evidence. As the researchers note, larger agencies may have more capacity (staff to apply for and manage evidence processing and testing grants) than smaller agencies.
It is clear that prioritization of evidence for future testing should be based on the likelihood that it could solve the case and would take into account the seriousness of the crime, considering the resource crisis facing state and local police departments and crime labs.
The bottom line, of course, is that any overall increase in the amount of forensic evidence sent to crime labs for analysis will have an impact on existing backlogs. With respect to property crimes, for instance, we know that collecting and analyzing DNA evidence can have a significant effect on arrests and prosecutions (see “DNA Solves Property Crimes: But Are We Ready for That?” available at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/journals/261/dna-solves-property-crimes.htm).
An NIJ-funded five-city field test in 2008 showed that collecting and analyzing DNA evidence in burglaries resulted in new investigatory leads, more arrests, and higher closure rates; however, the impact of actually collecting and analyzing DNA evidence in all burglaries (in 2007, there were over 4.5 million unsolved property crimes in the United States) would be cataclysmic for most police departments, crime labs, prosecutors, and legal-aid defense lawyers at current resource levels.
Improving Investigation Outcomes
Meanwhile, NIJ is involved in a unique partnership with three jurisdictions to help improve the movement of forensic evidence through the criminal justice system. Crime labs in Georgia; Kansas City, Missouri; and Minnesota have identified one breakdown or “blind spot” in their processing or use of forensic evidence in the investigative and prosecutorial process. In Kansas City, for example, authorities are focusing on educating judges and prosecutors about lab processes in an effort to reduce court-ordered rush analyses.
NIJ has funded the Institute for Law and Justice to evaluate the solutions developed by these jurisdictions and will keep Police Chief readers informed as those results come in. ?
|Suspect has not been identified||44%|
|Suspect adjudicated without forensic evidence testing||24%|
|Case has been dismissed||19%|
|Did not feel evidence was useful to the case||17%|
|Analysis not requested by prosecutor||15%|
|Suspect has been identified but not formally charged||12%|
|Inability of laboratory to produce timely results||11%|
|Insufficient funds for analysis of forensic evidence||9%|
|Laboratory will not accept forensic evidence due to backlog||6%|
Please cite as:
Kristina Rose, "From the Acting Director: Findings of the 2007 Forensic Evidence NIJ-Funded Survey," The Police Chief 77 (April 2010): 20–21,
http://policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&article_id=2063&issue_id=42010 (insert access date).