In 2002, a series of devastating investigative reports by KHOU revealed systemic mismanagement and incompetence at the Houston Police Department’s crime lab—unqualified staff, improperly labeled evidence, sloppy testing, even DNA samples contaminated by a leaky roof in the evidence room. There were thousands of untested sexual assault kits dating back to the 1980s and a 39,000-sample backlog in the controlled substances division. Three men were ultimately exonerated based on a subsequent internal review, including George Rodriguez, an inmate in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Garza Unit West, who had spent 17 years in prison for a kidnapping and rape he didn’t commit. “Worst Crime Lab in the Country?” asked a 2003 New York Times story. It seemed a reasonable question.
In response, the HPD brought in Irma Rios, a 19-year veteran of the Texas Department of Public Safety, who arrived to find over 30 ongoing internal affairs investigations. Within a few years of her arrival, roughly 70 percent of the staff either quit or were fired, she estimates. “Some did not leave willingly, but we had to make sure we had the right people in place,” Rios said. Slowly, things began to improve: by 2005, the lab had finally received national accreditation. In 2014, in a move signaling that still more change was necessary, Mayor Parker transferred management of the lab from the HPD to a newly established government corporation, the Houston Forensic Science Center, which was placed under the control of a board of directors appointed by Parker.
As the first major city to set up a semi-autonomous crime lab, a step first recommended by the National Academy of Science in 2009, Houston now finds itself in an unaccustomed position at the head of the field, a fresh paradigm rather than a shameful embarrassment. “The culture of this organization is a science and technology culture,” said Dan Garner, an internationally renowned forensic scientist hired by the city in 2013 to lead the transition. (Rios stayed on as the division director of forensic analysis.) “We’re not a law enforcement organization, we’re not a prosecuting organization.”
Although the city is its biggest client, the HFSC can now hire itself out elsewhere, giving it financial independence, something the center never had when it competed for funds against other HPD divisions. Garner is even open to the possibility of offering his department’s services to criminal defendants—something that would have been anathema under the ancien régime. “We’re providing forensic services, and that can be used by both the prosecution and the defense,” he said. “It shouldn’t matter to us who it benefits—good science is good science.”
In an overhaul this ambitious, lingering problems are probably inevitable. Last year, a quarter of all criminals exonerated nationwide were veterans of the Harris County court system. And DNA lab technician Peter Lentz resigned in March 2014 after an internal investigation concluded that he had mishandled dozens of cases.
For all its autonomy, the HFSC is still based in the HPD’s downtown headquarters (plans are underway to move to a separate facility), and about a quarter of its staffers are HPD officers. Still, in February the HFSC celebrated a major milestone: it finally cleared its backlog of over 6,600 sexual assault kits dating back 30 years. The moment was bittersweet—the kits turned up 850 matches in the FBI’s national DNA database, leading to charges being filed belatedly against 29 individuals, including suspects who had gone on to commit at least six other rapes while the kits were languishing in an HPD evidence locker. But it also marked a moment of redemption for a lab that had once been a national disgrace. As one of the first cities in the country to eliminate its backlog, and one of the first to make its crime lab independent of the police department, Houston is now drawing a new kind of attention.
“I think we are a model right now,” Garner said. “We know, based on conversations we’ve had with colleagues around the country, that there are a lot of people watching us. A lot of people want to see if this is a viable option.”