Costly cleanup after HPD fingerprint lab mess

December 2, 2009 3:56:14 PM PST
There is more fallout from an audit that found years of mistakes by police examiners in charge of fingerprinting. Now city leaders are trying to find millions of dollars to pay for a review of thousands of criminal cases. We first told you about the massive overhaul in store for the Houston Police Department's identification unit on Tuesday. Now city leaders are looking for a way to pay for it and this comes as the city is already operating in the red.

The latent print lab at HPD had a poor showing after results of a year-long audit were released on Tuesday. Inadequate training, staffing and funding were all blamed for why key evidence in violent crime cases were wrong and not properly analyzed.

Facing more than a $100 million budget shortfall, Houston's City Council is stuck with trying to figure out how to find the money to pay for the massive shakeup at HPD's latent print lab.

It's a cost that could be as high as $2 million. One council member is already looking for a way to lessen the financial burden to the taxpayer.

"Is there a way that we might be able to use technological advances, computer equipment, that kind of thing to have digital evaluation of latent prints rather than relying on human beings? Those types of cost savings," said Houston City Council Member Anne Clutterbuck.

The audit suggests hiring consultants, training employees and meeting proper industry standards. There are those on the City Council who believe that whatever the cost, the lab must be fixed.

"The police have identified funds to use for this. This is about justice and doing the right thing. We really don't have any choice but to deal with it," said Melissa Noriega, Houston City Council Member.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Houston police released the names of three lab employees relieved of duty: Supervisor Aristotle Arcero, a 14-year veteran; Examiner Rafael Saldivar, a 38-year veteran; and Jimmy Schraub, a 32-year veteran. All three are Class B police officers

The three are also members of the Houston Police Officers Union. Their attorney said he declined comment until he can review the audit on which the police chief based his actions.

Another action taken by HPD Chief Harold Hurtt is an HPD print reanalysis of approximately 700 violent crime cases per year. Going back six years, HPD estimates that's approximately 4,000 cases to be reanalyzed.

The mayor says it's critical to make sure crimes are solved correctly.

"If we want to reduce crime rates, a prompt dispatch of police to the scene is less important than taking fingerprints and getting biometric evidence and getting that right," said Houston Mayor Bill White.

City Council will hold committee meetings on this very issue this Friday. Chief Hurtt has indicated that he is planning to go before council sometime next week with his estimate on how much it will cost to fix the problem.


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