HPD crime lab asks for help

October 15, 2009 4:26:38 PM PDT
For years, we've been telling you about problems at the Houston Police Department's crime lab. Now we can tell you the department is finally asking for help from federal and state agencies to clear a huge backlog of rape kits and even some cold cases. After all these years of not getting anywhere with the backlog of roughly 4,000 rape kits that have yet to be tested, the director of HPD's crime lab is finally asking for help. While the FBI is dealing with its own backlog of cases, the crime lab's director believes it may be better equipped to handle the load.

It's no secret the HPD's crime lab has had major difficulties in keeping up with the ever increasing demand for DNA testing. It's a problem the lab has been dealing with since we first told you about the backlog way back in 2001, when we uncovered several thousand untested rape kits.

"It's an awesome chore and task and we're going to get it done," said Houston Police Department Chief Harold Hurtt.

On the heels of asking for $2 million to hire more DNA technicians to clear the backlog, the crime lab's director for the first time is reaching out to other law enforcement agencies, namely the FBI, for help.

"I'm optimistic. I'm looking at grants. I'm looking at private entities. I'm looking at the DA's office. So we're looking at different ways we can fund this project and get these rape kits completed," said Irma Rios, HPD Crime Lab Director.

Crime labs across the country are facing the daunting task of meeting the increased demand for DNA testing as cases are being processed at a record pace. A budget crunch coupled with the current economic downturn has impeded progress.

"If we had the appropriate funding and support we could get that done here at a much quicker pace. I think we now have the commitment to move forward a little bit faster," said Chief Hurtt.

The crime lab was recently awarded a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Justice to purchase robots and implement new procedures and training in an effort to automate the DNA testing process. While no one is calling it a silver bullet, it is, along with the crime lab director's plea for help, a significant step in the right direction.

"We're attacking it multiple ways to address these cases," said Rios.

HPD hopes to get the new automated system off the ground in the next 15 months. We called the FBI's crime lab late Thursday afternoon, but they said they are working on a response.

To give you an idea of just how many cases the crime lab works, every month they get between 1,800 and 2,000 narcotics cases. In all, the director says they work about 30,000 cases a year, and this year they expect to do even more than that.

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