While federal grant money can mean better equipment, faster processing and overtime pay, the backlog of DNA cases at two East Valley police departments is unlikely to go away without additional staffing.
"More people," said Gini Smart, head of the DNA unit at the Mesa Police Department. "And, of course, the space for more people."
Smart said the one disadvantage of the grants is they don’t provide more staff, though they often pay for subcontractors.
Mesa and Scottsdale are two of only four police departments in Arizona to have their own DNA labs. Phoenix and Tucson are the others.
Smart and Steve Garrett, head of Scottsdale’s DNA lab, Tuesday afternoon were waiting for news on how a $2.5 million U.S. Department of Justice grant would be divvied up between the labs, all of which have backlogs. The grants will provide faster technology to help existing staff process DNA samples more efficiently.
"Backlogs are not going to go away," Smart said. "But, hopefully, they will become more manageable."
The backlog in Mesa hovers at about 200 nonemergency cases, such as burglaries, and the turnaround is typically six to eight months.
Garrett said they try to get all samples tested within 30 days. But then, "We are not accepting all the cases just because we can’t handle it all," he said.
Meanwhile, the Scottsdale unit is processing, thanks to an earlier grant, thousands of "cold case" files.
The goal is to match someone already in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System database.
Results show they are getting "hits" on about 20 percent of the cases with viable DNA. He expects that percentage to grow.
"Just because it didn’t hit today doesn’t mean it won’t hit next week because new samples are being put in all the time," he said.
His unit’s success is also its problem, he said. More detectives want DNA testing because it could turn their cases into slam-dunks, and that popularity in turn contributes to an even bigger backlog.