The supervisor, Ken Phillips, a former officer who has spent three decades in forensics and was recruited to the lab in 2017, said he is coming forward because his attempts to alert superiors and city officials about the backlog have been ignored.
In interviews, he and a former senior lab supervisor describe a sort of theater, designed to appease the public: Officers collect evidence at crime scenes, but their work is rarely used and nonviolent crimes are rarely solved.
“If you had a burglary in your house the last three or four years, the chance of getting results is zero to none,” added Roy Michael Jones, a fingerprint analyst for more than 30 years who retired in frustration in 2019.
The Baltimore Police Department’s closure rate for property crimes this year is 3.6 percent, the department said. The national average is 10 percent.
Phillips sent a letter to the mayor’s office earlier this year and reached out to the head of the department’s Public Integrity Bureau. As a whistleblower, he said, he faces reprisals but felt compelled to reveal a system that wastes time and money and jeopardizes criminal cases.
Experts say backlogs are not uncommon in big cities, with departments forced to prioritize due to a lack of funds. But Phillips said Baltimore police don’t acknowledge the size of the untouched caseload. As of July 20, the crime lab reported a backlog of 894 fingerprint cases.
“It’s no exaggeration to say they’ve written off 10,000 cases, and it’s probably much higher,” Phillips told the Baltimore Sun.
He said in addition to the failure to analyze evidence from nonviolent crimes, there is a backlog of unprocessed evidence from thousands of cases that could help convict suspects or clear the wrongly accused. Mostly leftover from years ago, they include killings, rape and carjacking cases, he said.
Phillips said he has been trying to call attention to the issue for more than a year. He filed an internal affairs complaint with the department, met with the inspector general’s office, and wrote a letter to Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott.
“I believe the citizens’ right to know about serious mismanagement and waste of public funds outweighs any supposed interest the BPD may have in keeping these matters confidential,” Phillips told Scott in an April 11 letter.
He is suspended with pay and facing potential discipline — retaliation, he said, for speaking up.
The inspector general’s office would not comment. Scott’s spokesman, Cal Harris, referred a request for comment to the police department.
The police department responded with a statement, saying it took Phillips’s complaint seriously and that the Maryland Department of Health and the American National Standards Institute’s accreditation board looked into it and “did not have any negative findings on the department’s process and policies.”
“The department will continue to work in addressing the back log of cases, and staff shortages in our Crime Lab, while prioritizing violent crimes and evidence in these cases,” the statement said.
The department won’t discuss any internal discipline he faces as a matter of policy, and Phillips said that policy prevents him from discussing why he’s suspended.
Steve O’Dell oversaw the Baltimore crime lab from 2013 to 2020, first as lab director and then as the department’s chief financial officer. He said labs never test all evidence, and instead work with detectives to prioritize cases and cut down on unnecessary work.
“You can’t get bogged down working on stuff nobody is going to pay attention to,” O’Dell said. “The best practices are always triage. You can’t go to a ‘test all’ approach.”
Phillips, the fingerprint supervisor, said the lab generally does a good job working violent crime cases and has good turnaround times for them. And while he acknowledges the lab’s bandwidth challenges regarding property crimes, he asked: “At what point does it become unacceptable?”
Roy Jones, the retired fingerprint examiner, said he left over frustrations with the lab’s policies and leadership. He said the only way a property crime gets processed is if “you know somebody in the police department or insisted on your case getting done.”
“It wasn’t sitting well with me, so I left,” Jones said.
The Baltimore crime lab has a budget of $22.7 million this fiscal year, up from $19.8 million fiscal year 2019, while the number of positions has declined by 15 during that time, to 173 employees.
In 2002, there was a backlog of 1,000 fingerprint cases, which officials at the time called troubling. If Phillips’s estimates are correct, the number has grown tenfold.
Michele Triplett, who runs a regional fingerprint identification program in Seattle, said that while staffing issues are a challenge, often labs don’t have efficient processes. She said property crimes shouldn’t just be written off.
“If your house is burglarized, that emotionally affects the citizen in a very similar way [to a violent crime],” Triplett said. “The taxpayers pay for these services, and if the services aren’t going to be performed, maybe they should be given to a group that can perform them.”
She suggested that county or state labs should be asked to assist. Maryland State Police say they have no fingerprint backlog.
Houston’s police lab closed amid problems in 2008, and the city now has an independent lab.
Peter Stout, director of the Houston Forensic Science Center, said his lab works with police to prioritize what is tested and reduce the workload. He said it has a fingerprint backlog of 2,500 items.
“The reality is, everybody has to work through some strategy to try to corral the absolutely gigantic pile of evidence that fundamentally none of us have the resources to manage,” Stout said.
But leaving that decision to police could be problematic. In Baltimore, the Department of Justice’s civil rights investigation into the department in 2016 concluded detectives “persistently neglect to request lab testing of rape kits and other forensic evidence,” for instance. Justice Department investigators found that between 2010 and 2015, detectives requested that rape kits be tested in 15 percent of cases. Their report did not contain data on fingerprints.
Stout said such testing decisions shouldn’t be left up to detectives.
“It is an oversimplification to leave all of the choice to investigators, just as it’s an oversimplification to leave everything to the lab,” he said. “It’s got to be an interaction between all of the various users in the system.”
Phillips spent 25 years as a police officer in Chattanooga, Tenn., becoming a supervisor of the crime lab there. He retired in 2006 and became a contractor for the Defense Department.
He said was recruited for the job with the Baltimore department and was hired in 2017. He earned a salary of $145,235 last fiscal year, city data shows.
Phillips said the Baltimore lab has poor management systems, making it difficult to assess problems or prioritize work. His assessment of the backlog comes from conversations with others and his random sampling of cases; he said that even as a supervisor for the unit, he was not able to fully assess the backlog.
“You’re in this full-blown triage mode where you’re more or less hitting high spots,” Phillips said.
He said that due to the lab’s staffing problems, workers there essentially ignore a large volume of cases brought in by crime lab technicians. They’re not examined nor entered into databases. Those cases are written off after two years, on a rolling basis, and don’t become part of a backlog, he said.
In a 2019 email that Phillips provided to the Sun, deputy crime lab director Ethan Conway told Phillips: “Our backlog consists of all violent crimes and nonviolent crimes from the last two years. These are cases we will focus our resources on until such time that we can handle incoming cases and begin to expand the scope of our work.”
Phillips said he told the inspector general and the department’s public integrity bureau: “You need to make a choice to have enough staff to staff this unit, or quit wasting taxpayers money by sending people out on crime scenes, and misleading victims, making them think there’s evidence collection.”
O’Dell, the former crime lab director, says crime labs with bigger backlogs can cite them as evidence they need more funding. So, he said, Baltimore wouldn’t have an incentive to downplay the problem. Instead, he said, officials are taking a realistic approach to processing evidence.
Phillips said he heard nothing for a year after filing a complaint in June 2020, and said he was told it got lost in the shuffle.
He was only recently interviewed by commanders, meeting with deputy commissioners Brian Nadeau, who heads the public integrity bureau, and James Gillis, who oversees the crime lab. He said investigators seemed more concerned about how he raised the issues than the issues themselves.
“The reason I turned to the press is because for over two years total, I have been working within the system to get wrongdoing and mismanagement corrected and not only has nothing been done, but my work life has become very uncomfortable for reporting wrongdoing,” Phillips said.
— Baltimore Sun