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Civil grand jury: SF crime lab shouldn’t be run by police

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June 1, 2016

San Francisco's scandal-ridden crime lab should be an independent agency rather than a division of the police force in order to remove potential bias and better handle investigations, the city's civil grand jury said in a report released Wednesday.

A six-month investigation by the government oversight panel, consisting of 19 volunteer jurors, found the Police Department's management of the lab resulted in bungled forensic science, theft in the drug-analysis lab and the embarrassment of two criminalists failing a national proficiency test.

The report was submitted to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and recommends that the city create an autonomous, independently funded crime lab — much like the city medical examiner's office, which runs death investigations.

"The grand jury really hit it out of the park with this report," said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. "Not only did they do their homework on the scandals that have plagued the crime lab, but they identified the reasons for it."

Adachi has been frustrated by the crime lab for years, seeing a conflict in an agency operated by a police force with a big stake in the results. The grand jury report outlined instances previously reported in the media in which the lab breached protocol or failed to reveal exculpatory evidence to defendants.

"Not only is it a conflict of interest to have the Police Department run the crime lab, but all of the best practices and forensic national guidelines say it is best to have an independent lab," Adachi said.

He said an independent lab would save the city money because the public defender's office would view the lab's work as unbiased and would not have to independently test evidence in criminal cases.

Police officials have read the report and are digesting some of the recommendations — including relinquishing control of the crime lab — as the agency moves forward with a host of department-wide reforms, said police spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak. Those reforms come amid a series of controversial police shootings, a racist text-messaging scandal and the forced resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr.

"The San Francisco Police Department is committed to providing the city with the highest level of forensic services at our crime lab," Andraychak said. "The department is committed to modernizing crime lab facilities and equipment, providing ongoing education and training to our scientific staff, and evaluating our command structure to ensure that we have an accountable and professional chain of command."

During its investigation, the grand jury panel interviewed crime lab personnel, directors of other crime labs, forensic experts, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

"The crime lab suffers from being too closely managed by the Police Department," the report said. "It has been headed by a rotating succession of police captains who lack the scientific knowledge to understand the intricate workings of the laboratory."

The panel recommended that, for the time being, the police captain overseeing the lab be replaced by a civilian who is a professional scientist.

The civil grand jury also recommended that the drug-analysis lab be reopened in conjunction with creating an independent crime lab.

In 2010, the drug lab was shut down due to allegations that a former technician, Deborah Madden, had stolen and used cocaine held as evidence. Drug analysis was outsourced to Alameda County following the scandal.

Evan Sernoffsky is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: EvanSernoffsky
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