VANCOUVER — As local law enforcement agencies continue to combat crime around the county with limited resources and less staff, state law enforcement departments also are struggling to keep up with recent demands.
At one of the Washington State Patrol crime labs in Vancouver, lab manager Ingrid Dearmore said she and her 14 employees have a full workload, partially due to the fact that there are vacant positions in WSP forensic labs around the state. The Vancouver lab has three open positions in its DNA section alone.
Like other state agencies, the WSP labs are mostly supported by the state’s general fund, which has suffered numerous cuts over the years.
“They’re doing a good job to keep up with what’s coming in but they’re pretty much inundated right now,” Dearmore, who has worked for WSP for 24 years, confirmed. “We hope to fill the positions and are working toward that.”
“We are getting more cases submitted than we can possibly complete,” stated George Johnson, public information officer for WSP’s forensic lab services. Johnson added that the ongoing backlog not only contains submissions for current cases, but also evidence resurfacing from cold cases dating back to the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when DNA and other types of analysis was not available.
“But our scientists are very good,” Johnson noted. “They try to work in the ërush’ cases, like current court cases and ones that pose imminent danger, such as a rapist on the loose.”
Dearmore explained, “We have a total of eight labs in Washington in seven facilities. Pretty much each lab takes care of a portion of the state. In the Vancouver lab, we pretty much take care of six counties in Southwest Washington. We get about 100 cases per year from Pacific County, on average. We also do Wahkiakum, Cowlitz, Clark, Lewis and Skamania counties, and we handle DNA evidence for Yakima and Klickitat counties.”
DNA analysis is used for crime scene evidence, missing persons cases and unidentified remains. DNA profiles are also submitted to state and national felon databases.
In addition to DNA profiling, Dearmore’s lab also does material/chemical analysis, which is most often used for controlled substance cases and fire evidence.
“Three-quarters of the casework we receive, in terms of numbers of cases, is for controlled substances, but DNA cases more time consuming,” Dearmore noted.
The Pacific County Sheriffs Office and Long Beach Police Department both utilize the WSP labs for crime scene testing.
Pacific County Sheriff Scott Johnson confirmed that it can be a long wait for test results because of the high demand and shortage in staffing.
“They prioritize,” the sheriff explained. “Burglaries are not high on the list. Even some evidence testing in the [Devon] Moore murder case took almost a year and a half … There aren’t many analysts to do the job.”
In regard to fingerprints from car prowls and break-ins, Long Beach Police Chief Flint Wright added, “Here’s the thing on prints. For a print to be good, for a print to be usable on a burglary, it’s got to be a good print. In other words, it can’t be smudged, can’t be partial. Now for a serious crime, a crime lab tech team is utilized to thoroughly examine the scene for prints. But that just can’t be done for burglaries. I’m not devaluing burglary victims in any way when I say that, it’s just the truth.”
Dearmore said the WSP Crime Scene Response Team has two staff on call 24 hours a day to respond to major crimes around the state and assist law enforcement agencies in evidence collection and documentation.
Additional WSP lab departments include: firearms and toolmarks, specializing in gunshot residue, ammunition components, ballistics and reconstruction of shooting cases; microanalysis, where they conduct testing on hairs, fibers, glass, paint, soil, explosives and other residues, and analyze blood stain patterns; questioned documents, specializing in handwriting and altered documents; and latent fingerprint analysis.
The WSP latent fingerprint lab is in Olympia, but Dearmore said the agency is in the process of expanding to a second location in Spokane or Cheney. While some police and sheriff agencies are fortunate enough to have their own latent-print labs, the agencies that utilize WSP’s latent lab inherently expect a longer wait for their results, which is sometimes misunderstood by the general public.
When asked about how real-life forensics testing differs from what the public sees on television crime dramas, Dearmore said, “We don’t tackle a case in 50 minutes; there’s a lot more involved. On a show it may show them reporting the results verbally or over the phone. A DNA case can take weeks, and a controlled substance can take an hour, depending on the amount and how complex of a case it is. Then we interpret analytical results, evaluate the data and interpret it. We write up a report, then the report and case notes are reviewed by another scientist, like a peer review, and then it undergoes an administrative review. Then the results given. More quality control measures are taken than what you’d see on TV.”