Credit: Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

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Unlike police in most big cities, D.C. cops don’t have their own crime lab. For decades the city has relied on the FBI to perform nearly all of its forensic investigations, in a unique arrangement emblematic of the District’s status as the federal government’s red-headed stepchild.

At long last, a crime lab of the District’s own is planned for Southwest, to be completed in early 2010. Problem is, at this rate, the District won’t have anyone to staff it.

After the FBI moved its forensics lab from its D.C. headquarters to Quantico, Va., in 2003, D.C. police made sure to get a written agreement with the agency to allow District employees to train and work as analysts at the new lab. But the civilians training under that agreement don’t seem to care that the District is getting up to speed with CSI. Three employees quit almost immediately after the move, including one who had completed 16 of the 18 required months of training.

At an April 4 D.C. Council hearing, police Chief Cathy Lanier testified about her department’s continuing inability to hang on to DNA analysts: “Over the past two years, seven of 10 employees have resigned from the program,” said Lanier. “Training and noncompetitive salaries have played a role in this turnover.”

An FBI DNA analyst makes more than a DNA analyst hired by the District makes, even though they fiddle with the same test tube. (Direct salary comparisons were not available by press time.)

“As you can imagine, working side-by-side at Quantico with people performing similar work but at a higher pay scale has been a significant morale issue,” Lanier said.

As advances in profiling techniques have made DNA more and more of an asset to law enforcement, the growing backlog of unsolved D.C. cases has become an increasing problem for local and federal law enforcement alike—the feds can’t deal with D.C.’s cases fast enough, and the glut of D.C. cases gets in the way of the feds’ normal workload.

At a March 27, 2006, hearing before the D.C. Council’s committee on public safety, then chief Charles Ramsey testified about the usefulness of DNA in forensic criminal investigations, as glorified by TV programs like CSI and Law and Order (which he mentioned by name). D.C. hadn’t kept pace with Hollywood: “The District of Columbia has been behind the curve—far behind the curve, for a long period of time—when it comes to harnessing the power of DNA technology,” Ramsey said. He lamented that the three employees had quit after the Quantico move.

“The Department is actively recruiting to fill these three positions,” Ramsey said at the hearing. “We ran an ad in Sunday’s Washington Post, and the positions have been advertised on our Web site.”

Mayor Adrian Fenty’s recently released budget includes a 37.6 percent increase in funding for the Forensic Laboratory Technician Training Program. Lanier testified that the bulk of the funding increase is for improved salaries at the lab.

The problem extends beyond DNA specialists. Chris LoJacono, commander of the department’s Forensic Science Division, says uncompetitive salaries have also hurt the department badly in the Firearms and Tool Mark Examination section.

“We have a history of losing qualified firearms examiners to the federal government,” LoJacono says. He says the department has lost seven firearms examiners in the last seven years—a big problem considering the year-and-a-half training period the position requires. Four of the examiners went to the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; three joined police forces in Maryland. “It’s not cost-effective to constantly be losing people to other agencies,” LoJacono says.

The stakes are probably highest with the DNA lab. There is a backlog of DNA evidence on more than 1,500 rape cases and more than 4,000 murder cases. At a Sept. 22 congressional hearing about the need for a dedicated District crime lab, then U.S. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein testified about how a crime lab has benefited a neighboring jurisdiction: “The Commonwealth of Virginia has shown how ­enormously valuable DNA databases can be in crime-solving,” Wainstein said. “Since the creation of its data bank in 1992, Virginia has entered over 250,000 samples taken from felons who committed all kinds of crimes. The data bank has produced 3,451 hits, which have solved 338 murders, 610 sex crimes, and 2,163 burglaries.”

On March 27, a D.C. Superior Court judge sentenced District resident Jerry Hill to 15 years in prison after investigators used DNA to link him to a 1999 homicide after the initial investigation had gone cold. The Justice Department touted the use of DNA evidence in getting the conviction.

Despite the attrition cited by Lanier, police have filled nine of the 10 positions at Quantico, and the ’08 budget will add funds for 10 additional lab employees. These people, department honchos hope, will staff the D.C. lab, planned for the current site of the 1st District station house, when it finally opens.