SDPD Installs New Leader at Crime Lab - Voice of San Diego

Public Safety

SDPD Installs New Leader at Crime Lab

SDPD has put a police captain in charge of its crime lab for the first time since the 1990s. The change comes after Voice of San Diego reported that the crime lab had lowered testing standards for certain kits in order to help clear its rape kit backlog.

San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit / Photo by Megan Wood

The San Diego Police Department has made a major leadership change at its crime lab.

The department transferred Capt. Stephanie Rose to be the commanding officer overseeing the crime lab on Oct. 5, a department spokesman confirmed to Voice of San Diego. Jennifer Shen, a civilian and the crime lab manager, had served as the lab’s commanding officer.

The leadership change came two weeks after Voice of San Diego reported that the lab had instituted lower testing standards for some previously unanalyzed rape kits, which Shen and former SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman had for years argued against testing.

There has not been a police captain in charge of the lab since “sometime in the late 1990s,” said Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, an SDPD spokesman.

“The change was made to have an outside perspective on Crime Lab procedures and business flow processes,” Takeuchi wrote in a statement. “We employed a similar strategy in Jan. 2017 when we assigned a police captain to our Communications Unit to look how 911 calls and non-emergency calls were being handled. The benefits we hope to see are again, an outsider’s perspective and changes be made to improve unit processes.”

No other personnel changes have been made at the crime lab, Takeuchi said.

Crime lab leadership had directed analysts in the forensic biology unit to institute less rigorous testing procedures on dozens of kits from the city’s rape kit backlog. Analysts would test only one swab from those kits, and always the same swab, even though the lab’s standard procedure called for at least six swabs to be tested and allowed discretion over which swabs were most likely to find a suspect’s DNA.

District Attorney Summer Stephan blasted SDPD’s entire approach to analyzing previously untested rape kits. She said she had not been made aware of the policy change, but later acknowledged one of her deputies, who is on a task force with SDPD to sort through untested rape kit backlog, had been told of the change, but did not approve it.

A day later, SDPD Chief David Nisleit announced all rape kits would undergo the same testing procedures, and agreed to join a Stephan-led effort to send all untested rape kits in the county to a private, third-party lab for testing. SDPD had previously refused to join the Sheriff’s Department and all the other jurisdictions in the county in that effort.

Last month, Voice of San Diego revealed that the lowered testing standards for certain kits was not the only recent change in the crime lab. Internal crime lab documents, and statements from five city criminalists revealed the department instituted additional standards about when DNA found in kits from the previously untested backlog could be uploaded to a federal DNA database. Uploading such profiles is a foundational argument behind the national movement to “clear the backlog” of untested kits.

In June 2017, the City Council budgeted $500,000 to help the crime lab begin clearing its backlog of untested rape kits. A few months later, the Department of Justice published guidance urging departments to test all rape kits.

Between late 2017 and November 2018, SDPD tested 313 backlogged kits, according to information Voice of San Diego received in a public records request. Of those, 121 returned a DNA profile that could be uploaded into the federal DNA database. Thirty-eight of those profiles matched a profile that was already in the database, generating a possible lead in the case.

In 2016, Shen, the crime lab manager, said it didn’t make sense to analyze untested kits because detectives had already determined whether they had investigative value.

“By the time a kit gets to the laboratory, it’s been vetted as a piece of evidence that’s meaningful, as a piece of evidence that could yield a profile that we would be able to upload into a database at a national or state level,” Shen said.

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