City officials clash over fingerprint lab funds

May 25, 2010 4:59:22 PM PDT
There are problems at another HPD lab. Thousands of cases from the latent fingerprint lab were under review after an audit discovered examiners missed prints or didn't accurately analyze others. On Tuesday, we learned the results of the review.

The latent fingerprint lab has been under scrutiny since last year when a random review of 548 cases showed major problems in all levels. On Tuesday the request for more money for additional consultants to fix the ongoing problems at the fingerprint lab drew heated arguments at City Hall.

The problems at the Houston Police Department's latent crime lab have not gotten worse, but fixing it is getting more expensive.

"There's budget allocated that's a little bit over $2 million," Council Member Melissa Noriega said.

Noriega, who's the Public Safety chair, had expected a civil discussion over what consultants have done to improve the print lab.

And in the beginning, it was.

"Are we hemorrhaging money? No, I don't believe we are," HPD Exec. Assistant Chief Tim Oettmeier said. "It's unfortunate that we are having to spend money to reduce the backlog."

The Houston Police Department reported that consultants had rescreened 4,280 violent crime cases, and there were no wrong identifications. But 62 percent of the cases, or 2,655, did have technical problems.

Things went smoothly until Council Member Mike Sullivan accused colleague Jolanda Jones of talking off topic.

"Any day someone's locked up, and they shouldn't be, is a day too many or an hour long," Jones said.

"Let me then ask you where we're headed with this, as opposed to an open-ended, one-sided dialogue?" Sullivan replied.

"May I respond?" Jones said. "This is about people."

Then Noriega stepped in.

"Hold on! Hold on! Hold on!" she said.

After calming everyone down, Noriega pointed out there weren't enough council members present to vote on whether to spend the $2 million to keep the lab consultants on the job.

And although the funding is already allocated in the budget, it's clear the fight at City Council accomplished little.

"I think that colleagues have the right to attend meetings or not to attend them," Noriega said. "I think colleagues have the right to ask questions."

The $2 million in additional funding is expected to go through when the final budget is approved next month.

In the meantime, Sullivan ended up walking out of Tuesday's meeting.


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