LOS ANGELES -- A shortage of fingerprint experts at the Los Angeles Police Department has caused a large backlog of unanalyzed fingerprints, resulting in long delays to thousands of active criminal investigations.
The LAPD's beleaguered Latent Print Unit has failed to analyze fingerprints from about 2,200 burglaries, auto thefts and other property-related crimes, according to department figures. Detectives wait on average between two and three months to get print results back from the lab, LAPD officials said. In some cases, the delay can last more than a year and, in older cases in which the detectives have not pressed for analysis, prints are ignored altogether because the unit cannot keep up with the constant inflow of cases.
"In a perfect world, we'd get results back in a day or two," said Michael Brausam, a detective in the LAPD's Central Division. "The longer you leave these criminals out on the street, they're likely going to be committing more crimes. And, if you do get a match on prints months later, it can be much harder to prove your case."
And the prospect of the situation improving is bleak because of the city's ongoing hiring freeze.
Since the freeze in 2009, the fingerprint unit has lost 27 of its 97 analysts. Over the next five years, 20 percent of the unit is expected to retire, officials said. Additionally, furloughs that are part of the city's attempt to close a budget shortfall have exacerbated the problem,
Meanwhile, the demands on the unit continue unabated. Last year, detectives requested fingerprints to be collected at 19,000 crime scenes, and the pace so far this year is the same. As a result, LAPD officials have decided on a rationing plan that they hope will bring the workload in line with the unit's capabilities.
Under the plan, which the department will roll out in coming months, each of the LAPD's 21 police stations and specialized divisions will be allotted only 10 cases each month in which fingerprints will be analyzed promptly, Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese said. All other cases will be placed on a waiting list. In addition, said Albanese, a handful of officers will be trained to collect prints at crime scenes in order to allow the print unit to spend more time in the lab analyzing prints.
"We're taking in more than we can process," Albanese told the department's oversight board recently. "We have to look at our capacity."
The rationing plan will apply only to property-related cases and will not affect homicides, sexual assaults and other violent crimes, which are handled separately. Even for violent crimes, however, it typically takes six to eight weeks to produce fingerprint results, officials said.
In a recent interview, Albanese acknowledged that the fingerprint unit's capabilities will be exhausted just by violent crimes and the prioritized property crimes. Prints from the hundreds of other property crimes that occur each month may go unanalyzed.