With more than 10 percent of its workforce out because of COVID-19, the Houston Forensic Science Center is dangerously close to having to limit its responses to crime scenes, the agency’s director said Monday.
Of 200 total staff, 10 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, said Dr. Peter Stout, CEO and president of the agency, which manages the city’s forensic laboratory and crime scene unit. Another 12 are self-quarantining while they await test results. None of the exposures appear to have been transmitted through their work, Stout said.
Stout said he’s “very worried” because about one-fourth of the agency’s team dedicated to crime scene investigation is out of commission due to COVID-19. He’s concerned what that might mean for the center’s ability to collect evidence at murders, police-involved shootings and child deaths.
“We’re precariously close to having to shift around so we can have any capacity to make scenes that come up,” said Stout.
After another positive test on Monday, a nine-person audio visual and digital unit for the agency lost its ability to collect evidence at crime scenes, Stout said. He said it is still possible for police to collect evidence, but added that putting that responsibility solely on officers creates other issues.
Delays in collecting evidence could mean further backlogs in criminal cases, prosecutors said.
“The pandemic is stretching the criminal justice system thin, causing backlogs up and down the system,” said Michael Kolenc, a spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “We will address any impact on a case-by-case basis.”
The center was already severely understaffed for a city the size of Houston before the pandemic, Stout said. There are usually 27 people working in the CSI unit. In cities like Dallas and Austin, the standard is around 100 crime scene investigators, Stout added.
“It’s not even close to the right magnitude of what we should have,” Stout said. “Especially this year, with the escalation in homicides, we were in a real pinch with the crime scene unit already.”
The unit is now only able to travel to scenes of homicides, officer-involved shootings, deaths of children and around 1 percent of aggravated assaults reported in the city, said Stout.
“It’s a serious issue,” Stout said.
If a victim in an aggravated assault later dies, the center’s unit most likely wasn’t at the scene to collect evidence. If a death that was initially believed to be self-inflicted, but is later classified as a homicide, the unit did not visit the scene. This is not the norm in most major cities, according to Stout.
For now, the crime scene unit is still operating 24/7. But the increased demands on a smaller unit eventually will take its toll, said Stout.
Overworking the staff is also a risk, the CEO said, because “tired people make mistakes.”
If the situation gets any worse, Stout said the unit may have to further limit their responses to the crime scenes. That would create a host of problems, he added.
“In officer-involved shootings, for instance, we’re the only independent civilian branch brought in to collect that evidence,” said Stout. “We make all of those calls right now, but at some point, if this keeps curving off our staff, we may not make them or there may be significant delays in getting there.”
Source : chron.com