A setback to solving crime looms

Shell casings are compared under a microscope to see whether they were fired from the same gun.

January 23, 2004

Cuts planned for Oregon State Police Forensics Program if Measure 30 fails could diminish law enforcement’s ability to solve crimes and prosecutors’ ability to convict criminals.

Evidence wouldn’t be processed in a timely manner, criminals would go uncharged and even the most violent crimes could take longer to solve.

Officials say that is the reality that city, county and state police departments face with the loss of forensic scientists throughout the state if the cuts happen.

Russ Walker, Oregon director of Citizens for Sound Economy, said the announced cuts are just a bluff.

“It’s a threat to taxpayers that they will cut the state’s forensic program,” Walker said. “It’s offensive that the legislatures say they would cut something this important.”

A $3.9 million reduction to the state’s forensic program is planned if the measure fails.

“I don’t think it will happen,” Walker said. “And if the legislators do it, then they are choosing not to reduce in nonessential areas such as the $1 billion computer fund or Oregon Cultural Trust Fund.

“We should be funding critical services first, then have a discussion about what to fund last.”

Dave Schmeirbach of the Oregon State Police said the best way to put these cuts in perspective is via some recent high-profile cases.

“In the case of the body found near Gervais, everyone we sent to that would be laid off; all of the scientists who responded to the Edward Morris case in Tillamook in December 2002 would be laid off,” said Schmeirbach, who is in charge of Oregon’s forensics program.

“And 75 percent of the scientists who went to the scene of the Miranda Gaddis and Ashley Pond homicides would be laid off.”

Personnel is the only area left to cut in the state’s forensic program, officials said.

Staff would be reduced from 107 to 47 forensic scientists to research every criminal case in the state.

At the beginning of 2003, there were 135 scientists who worked in the state’s forensic program. Many have left to find more secure employment.

“It would dismantle the system,” Lt. Dale Rutledge of the Oregon State Police said of Measure 30. “Our abilities to process scientific evidence is a deterrent to criminals. The lack of scientists will have a profound effect on our society.”

Because the scientists are union employees, officials have no choice about the areas in which they have to let people go.

“It’s last hired, first fired,” Rutledge said.

If the measure fails, the state’s crime lab will lose 55 percent of its DNA scientists, 67 percent of its DUI scientists, 60 percent of its latent prints scientists and 80 percent of the firearms scientists.

Plans to close crime labs across the state are not in the works, but it’s likely that they will be staffed by just one person.

Schmeirbach said that forensic scientists still would respond to crime scenes, like the case near Gervais, but it would take longer.

“People would have to come out of the crime lab who then wouldn’t be doing other stuff,” he said, referring to an already daunting backlog of cases.

As of December, there were 3,000 case requests pending, which is up by 400 since the middle of the year, officials said. The turn-around time for a case is currently about 33 days.

After the failure of Measure 28 last February, the crime labs were forced to institute a new policy called the prioritization and triage program in which all law enforcement agencies have to call before bringing anything to the lab.

If it’s not considered a high-priority case, then the agency has to store it in their own locker until they are given the green light.

Murders and rapes most often take first priority, officials said.

The backlog doesn’t include the evidence that remains at law enforcement agencies throughout the state, because it wasn’t given a priority status.

The failure of Measure 30 “will further restrict the evidence coming in,” Schmeirbach said.

Measure 28’s failure caused the layoffs of 80 people in the crime lab last February. Despite most of those positions being reinstated by the Legislature later in the year, officials haven’t been able to refill them.

“Many of these scientists are out looking for jobs that are more stable,” Schmeirbach said. “Even if we had the money to keep them, its hard to convince them that this job is stable.”

Schmeirbach said the failure of Measure 30 would be another setback to solving crimes and keeping qualified scientists.

The previous cuts to state’s crime lab have caused delays in prosecuting cases; further cuts would exacerbate the problem.

“These cuts would have a devastating impact on person crimes,” said Dale Penn, Marion County District Attorney.

“We rely upon the labs to send people to examine murder scenes,” Penn said. “They do DNA testing in those and rape cases that is crucial to our cases. Any science that’s involved comes through the Oregon crime lab.”

Law enforcement officials also are frustrated with the possibility of more cuts to the state’s crime lab.

“I am very concerned about this right now because of the cuts we went through last go-around,” said Marion County Sheriff Raul Ramirez. “We rely heavily on the forensic unit for investigation on major crime scenes.”

Law-enforcement officials are concerned that the backlog at the crime lab eventually could be so long that the statute of limitation will run out on some cases.

“We can collect the evidence, but we need it analyzed,” Ramirez said.

Rutledge said even the ability to charge people with DUIs would be hurt. There would be only two people, instead of eight, to maintain breath-test machines in the state. The number of machines will probably have to be reduced from 120 to 80. And if a machine fails, it likely won’t be replaced.

Of the 499 people killed on state highways last year, 38 percent to 40 percent were caused by people driving while impaired, Rutledge said.

“We saw an immediate (drop) in DUI arrests last February when we laid off 129 troopers,” he said. “Simply because we didn’t have the troopers out there.”

Officials say the breath analysis is crucial to prosecuting the 25,000 annual DUI cases.

“We’ve relied on them with all their equipment, tools and expertise,” Ramirez said. “To see the state crime labs decimated by these cuts is a disservice to Oregonians.”

LORI CAIN / Statesman Journal

Terry Coons, DNA technical leader for the Oregon State Police, places DNA samples in a centrifuge in preparation for analysis Wednesday at the Oregon State Police forensic laboratories.

Jody Lawrence-Turner can be reached at (503) 399-6721.