Houston’s criminal justice system was on a troubled foundation for about a decade. A series of scandals at the city’s crime laboratory, both system-wide and down to single individuals, resulted in exonerations and hundreds of criminal cases being questioned and reevaluated. That work continues to this day.
So in 2014, the city spun off its own civilian-run corporation to take over the task of collecting and testing the city’s evidence. The Houston Forensic Science Center has since cleared a massive backlog of rape kits, dramatically lowered processing time for pieces of evidence, and garnered some national acclaim for turning around the perception of justice in the nation’s fourth-largest city.
But the laboratory also assumed the responsibility of the city’s crime-scene unit. That marriage has not been as smoothly run over the last two years, by all accounts.
Citing response-time delays and inefficiencies, the Houston Police Department has asked to take back the CSU. The HFSC says it’s making improvements, and needs to retain control to keep the highest scientific rigor of the entire evidence-gathering system.
The city is currently in the process of making a decision of where to place the unit, which answers to two agencies and essentially operates under two roofs.
Catching the bad guys and putting them behind bars is now contingent on civilian-police cooperation, from crime scene to courtroom.
TWO MASTERS, ONE CRIME SCENE
Originally, the HFSC hired a call center to answer calls from police, round-the-clock. Everyone agrees: that system did not work. By all accounts, there were delays and problems with the responsivity. An hour-long wait for a homicide detective, on hold, at a crime scene remains perhaps the most cited anecdote.
The HFSC changed protocols so a supervisor would answer a phone 24/7, and get a response to the scene, said Peter Stout, HFSC’s chief operating officer and vice president, in a recent interview with Forensic Magazine.
The hour-long wait was an outlier – and response times have dramatically improved with the supervisor-on-call policy, said Stout.
That average response time has been cut to an average of 28 minutes over the last several months, based on call logs and GPS tracking, said Stout. That average is also improving, he added.
Overall, the CSU is best kept at the Forensic Science Center, because it preserves the scientific objectivity of all scenes, Stout contends. Recent reports by federal agencies have called for more-rigid scientific controls on evidence – and that fits in the HFSC mission, he said.
“We see it time and again – driving the whole of forensics toward more objectivity, more scientific framework – so that the forensic evidence is handled in that objective fashion,” Stout said. “The better that the evidence is that comes out of the field, the better our results are going to be…The whole goal is the right answer at the right time.”
The statistical successes claimed at the HFSC have been striking – a 50-percent reduction in turnaround time since last year, while there was a 35-percent increase in workload. Those successes are possible, officials said, because of a streamlined process starting with the CSU out at the scene.
THE COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION
But Houston detectives have found the current arrangement problematic for their work.
The HPD called for the return of the CSU in May – a position supported by both the brass and the rank-and-file officers, said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union.
“It’s been a disaster,” said Hunt, in an interview with Forensic Magazine. “We were big proponents of the Houston Forensic Science Center being created at first, and taking over the CSU… But it ain’t working, and they’re not going to be able to fix it.”
Civilian supervisors have to be on-call – but they only work day shifts, Hunt contends. On off-hours, a game of telephone is needed to get the response to a crime scene. The supervisors have to carry a cell phone at all times to answer calls from homicide or major crimes investigators, and those supervisors need to call a CSU to get out to the scene.
“Prior to this, they were under the Homicide Division. They were sitting on the other side of the cubicle from the 24-hour operation Homicide Division,” Hunt said. “They were on the street within minutes. And it worked out perfectly.”
Hunt disagrees that the CSU needs to remain with the HFSC for rigid scientific objectivity. The evidence comes back to the HPD property rooms anyway, he said.
“They’re turning around, and every item their CSU collects, they bring it back to the Houston Police Department to store,” the union president said. “If it’s an issue of trust, why the hell are you storing it at our location? Why don’t you have your own storage location?”
“It’s not to say there's anything wrong with the Houston Forensic Science Center,” Hunt added. “It’s just that they’re never going to get the funding that they need.”
The trend of hiring civilian experts to respond to crime scenes has been on the rise since the year 2000. In Texas, the Austin and Corpus Christi police have non-uniform experts collecting evidence and assisting police investigators. Places like Oklahoma City and the state of Maryland and a litany of others have also followed suit.
Houston’s city leaders will decide this autumn whether to keep civilians in charge of handling evidence at crime scenes – or whether to give the responsibility completely back to the police.
(A July audit of the police-involved shooting CSU response found that more cooperation between the HPD and HFSC unit was needed. But the situation remained unresolved.)
Most recently, a “forensic science task force” tapped by the city to look at the CSU question presented a preliminary report to the board at its Sept. 9 meeting.
Though the report is not yet final, all indications are that the CSU will remain with the HFSC.
The report, presented by two city administration officials, cited problems. Evidence packaging was not always appropriate or consistent. More standard-operating procedures could be established, including dispatching two CSIs to each scene (one primarily for taking the voluminous number of photographs), and for having more standard testing kits available to officers. More authority needs to be given to the lead crime scene investigator to control the scene – but in conjunction with a lead police investigator. The HPD controlling the property room is problematic – and there should be “more quality assurance,” they concluded.
Overall, the two agencies need to work together – and work together better, they indicated.
“We see some processes that need to be enhanced between the agencies,” said Steven David, of the mayor’s office, who presented part of the report.
But even the criticisms were balanced with a healthy amount of compliments – and it was noted that the HFSC could benefit from better facilities and an update to its laboratory inventory management system (LIMS).
“Y’all are in cramped facilities,” said David. “You’re doing more tests than ever. The turnaround time is really low. But it’s not low enough.
“The work that the forensic science center does is just as important as the work that the investigators do,” he added.
The preliminary report wouldn’t be finalized until city budgetary concerns were addressed. But the city officials indicated they would be in favor of keeping the status quo.
“The roles and responsibilities of this organization are things that we stand behind,” said Andy Icken, also of the city administration. “We stand behind the formation documents of the organization at this time… We’re not making any suggested changes at this time.”
The sole third-party to comment at the Sept. 9 meeting was a representative from the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.
Given the history, they said, the way things are now is preferred.
“In terms of moving this back to HPD, we’ve been down that road – it failed,” said Patrick McCann, a former president of the HCCLA. “It failed utterly and miserably… We don’t need to go back down that road.”