After report on Austin Police DNA lab quality issues, vision for new lab still unclear

Travis County
Austin Police Department APD DNA Lab_298747

Austin Police Department APD DNA Lab (KXAN Photo).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After Austin city leaders got a memo Friday with a report on how the Austin Police DNA Lab wound up with “significant” quality issues, Travis County Commissioners were briefed Tuesday on the findings of the report.

The report documented 57 contributing factors to the lab’s failures and offered 87 recommendations for improvement. But as city and county leaders explained Tuesday, the best format for a new DNA lab is still up in the air.

The APD DNA lab was staffed and operated by the Austin Police Department and impacts criminal cases in the Travis County justice system, so the city and the county have an interlocal agreement to pay for the cost of the lab.

The lab has drawn public concerns and criticism for years.

APD suspended operations at their DNA lab in June 2016. after the audit by the Texas Forensic Science Commission found the lab was using testing standards the forensic DNA community deemed scientifically unfounded. Since then, this lab work has been carried out through the Texas Department of Public Safety and other outside DNA labs. The agreement with DPS to carry out these labs continues through 2023, which gives the city some time to make a decision about what do do next, a city spokesperson said.

Quattrone Center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School was tapped by the city and county to compile this report which, as a representative for Quattrone described Tuesday, is designed to understand how the quality concerns TFSC found “could have persisted over a fairly lengthy period of time” despite audits and accreditation visits.

To do this work, Quattrone gathered thousands of pages of documents related to the lab, spoke with experts in lab management and DNA testing and conducted interviews with 45 people about the lab (including employees of the lab and APD leadership). Quattrone said 65 to 70% of the people they requested interviews with related to the APD DNA lab participated.

Quattrone representatives were joined by county and city executives Tuesday to summarize the findings and next steps to county commissioners.

John Holloway, executive director of the Quattrone Center, explained his team looked at the failures of the lab through a “swiss cheese model,” showing the commissioners a slide with a picture of Swiss Cheese to illustrate the holes in the system that allowed problems to creep in.

“When something goes wrong at the magnitude of what happened in the lab, it’s never just one thing,” he said. “You can never just point to one person. I think it would be a mistake to think that if you simply fired the DNA analyst at the time, that it would have eliminated the environment in which they were working. “

A slide from the Quattrone Center presentation regarding quality issues at the APD DNA lab as shared with Travis County Commissioners on Oct. 6, 2020.

Austin Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano explained the Quattrone Center did not choose to recommend one particular format for the new vision for the APD DNA lab, because so much in Austin’s public safety structure and funding was already in flux as the city undergoes a “reimagining” of what it wants public safety to look like.

Arellano noted as the city transitions funding and responsibilities out of APD this year, APD’s Forensic Bureau could become housed in a department outside of APD entirely.

Instead, Quattrone suggested four possible paths for what they’re calling “DNA Lab 2.0:”

  • Create a city lab which is not run by APD
  • Form a local government corporation to run the lab
  • Reconstitute the lab within APD
  • Create an interlocal agreement between the city and the county to run the lab.

Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore told commissioners Tuesday she believes it should be up to the “funding entities,” namely city council and Travis County Commissioners to choose how the lab should be run.

A city of Austin spokesperson explained that as the city goes through the process of reimagining public safety, it will also decide on a new plan for the DNA lab. The city added that “Travis County will be an important partner in determining how might DNA lab services be provided in the future.”

The spokesperson also said the city is working on a plan to apply the recommendations from Quattrone “to ensure any future lab operates with substantial improvements and ensures independence, transparency, flexibility, and efficiency.”

The contributing factors Quattrone listed at the APD DNA lab fell under a variety of categories, such as:

  • Supervising inadequacies
  • Poor understanding of guidelines
  • Improper and inconsistent ways of addressing deviations from protocol
  • The overall structure of the DNA laboratory
  • Use of equipment or supplies that are not supported by manufacturer’s guidelines
  • Severe organizational weaknesses that emerged during the technical leader’s sick leave

The report also indicates while previous complaints were filed, these were not investigated properly and did not address issues that would contribute to further lapses in quality control.

Holloway also mentioned another challenge of the lab was that the individual who was in charge of the quality assurance role didn’t have a familiarity with DNA. He suggested to county leaders that “it is a much better approach to be transparent with errors,” citing other labs like the Houston Forensic Science Center, which make errors and deviations available to the public.

Recommendations for improvement include changes to the structure of the DNA laboratory (“so that the police function does not influence the scientific function of the lab”), the creation of two panels of external advisors and a scientific advisory panel who would be able to give guidance to the lab on emerging trends and best practices.

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

Two local organizations for legal professional, the Capital Area Private Defender Service and the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, expressed concerns with the way Quattrone conducted this report, including that the contents of Quattrone’s interviews with people related to the lab had not been disclosed.

Attorney Krista Chacona spoke on behalf of ACDLA and told commissioners while the creation of this report has been “unfolding for at least three years,” ACDLA has not been an active participant in it. Chacona said her organization decided it could not sign off on the final report Quattrone created.

The closure of the lab

KXAN reported at the time the TFSC report on the lab in 2016 called into question the credibility of DNA results from close to 4,000 cases.

Since 2010, the lab had been using a testing standard that “is neither scientifically valid nor supported by the forensic DNA community,” according to the TFSC report.

The commission found the lab was not using some chemicals properly and cited evidence in sexual assault cases may have been impacted and observed potential “carry-over contamination” in the DNA samples.

The closure of APD’s DNA lab was ordered back in June of 2016 while the TFSC report was finalized.

At the time, then APD Chief Art Acevedo said the formulas APD had been using formulas to validate DNA samples were inconsistent with the formula adopted by the state. He also noted the lab had struggled with standards after the lab director passed away that Spring.

Back then, Acevedo said he expected APD would be allowed to reopen their DNA lab in four to six months.

It has been more than four years since that time, creating ripple effect challenges for the criminal justice system in Travis County and delays in testing.

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