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APD says fingerprints need more staff

Tuesday, February 3, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

On Monday, the Public Safety Commission addressed a situation that has crime scene fingerprints in Austin waiting years to be analyzed.

According to Ed Harris Jr., chief of support services at the city’s forensics lab, the city has 1,693 latent assignments pending. Harris said that, with the addition of three senior examiners, the latent fingerprint division could get rid of the backlog within two years.

Harris also clarified that the increase would not lead to overstaffing. “We are turning away cases,” he said. “We are trying to concentrate on the high-volume cases, the personal crimes and the property crimes. We are getting more requests in. We would never be overstaffed.”

Right now, Harris said the existing staff of four latent print examiners is able to keep up with the new cases coming in. But he said that is all they can handle, which leaves no time to work on the existing backlog of cases.

Harris made it clear that part of the problem is a loss in experienced staff and the inability to hire more seasoned analysts. He said the city’s pay scale had fallen behind those of other cities, and the department was finding it difficult to recruit experienced candidates as a result.

Commissioners voted unanimously to increase the latent fingerprints division staff, and suggested the increase might help with Austin’s steadily dismal property crime rates.

Currently, Austin has about 7,500 property crimes each year, and a clearance rate of less than 10 percent.

“Our burglary stats are not so good,” said Chair Kim Rossmo. “Overall, nationally, the latest data shows burglaries dropping in the country. It’s either staying the same or growing a bit in Austin, in terms of the per capita rates.”

“There’s a cost to not processing this. It’s just not paid by the city,” said Rossmo.

Harris concurred.

“We do believe that we could make a significant impact, because we do believe that many of the offenders out there are repeat offenders. We do believe that, if we had the appropriate manpower to work cases more timely, that some of the repeat offenders that are out there would be off the street a lot quicker,” said Harris, who clarified that identified serial criminals are “bumped” and dealt with as a priority.

According to the Public Safety Commission presentation, at this time most of the property crime-related identifications that are generated by the automated fingerprint identification system are worked on for two or three months before the statute of limitations expires. The statute of limitations for burglaries is five years.

Photo by Stefan Schweihofer

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