APD memo: DNA lab freezer broken for 6 days reaching 80 degrees

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police DNA lab has been shut down since June, due to a lack of properly trained staff, but a memo obtained by KXAN shows problems with the lab also extend to equipment failure.

According to the memo dated March 17, an analyst told the interim DNA technical leader/supervisor that the walk-in freezer was very warm. The freezer’s normal temperatures should range from -13 degrees Fahrenheit to 23 degrees Fahrenheit. The day the analyst reported the problem, the freezer was at 68 degrees.

The freezer with the problem was freezer number 5, which typically stores hundreds of evidence samples including things like evidence just collected, evidence being screened for biological material, evidence being DNA tested and evidence pending analysis. Maintenance says the condenser unit on the rooftop of the building had a Freon leak.

According to the documents, the freezer was out of service for 6 days from March 8 through March 14. During that time, the maintenance manager determined the freezer reached temperatures as warm as 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The freezer is set up to alarm maintenance when temperatures get above a certain degree, but the memo states that alarm malfunctioned.

Ultimately, the interim DNA technical leader/supervisor decided to keep the situation quiet. The reason was in part because they determined no one would know the difference:

Although it would be possible to determine the number of samples stored in freezer 5 during the impacted time frame, there is no way to determine if any samples have been compromised. Each case is independent of any other sample and the impact on that particular sample is unknown. It is not uncommon to perform DNA testing on a sample and not get a DNA profile. The lack of a DNA profile cannot be used to make the determination of whether or not the sample was impacted by the freezer 5 outage. For this reason I do not believe that customer notifications need to take place at this time.”

Maintenance was able to fix the freezer and, on March 15, temperatures were within the acceptable ranges. All of the evidence from Freezer 5 was kept in that location.

The maintenance manager suggested replacing the condensing unit that broke, because it was at least 10 years old at the time it malfunctioned.

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