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West Va. Police Crime Lab Experiencing Backlog Buildup

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - The West Virginia State Police crime lab is struggling to keep up with an increasing volume of evidence, the lab's director says.

The DNA analysis section has a five-month backlog, while the drug identification and latent fingerprints areas have several months' worth of cases on hold, Capt. Ted Smith said. Lab sections that analyze documents, toxicology, ballistics and trace evidence - including fire accelerants - are on schedule, he said.

Staffing is another concern, Smith said.

"Whenever we have to replace employees ... that creates a time lag for us," he said. "Sometimes it takes several months to get them hired."

Even new hires with four-year degrees require an additional six months to two years of training, depending on their specialties, Smith said. DNA analysts must train a year before working alone.

Analysts earn an average of $30,000 to $35,000 per year, and Smith said the lab has lost workers to medical schools and industrial labs that offer higher pay.

Job stress can also be a factor in turnover, he said.

Meanwhile, recent turnover rates have left the lab's backlogged sections with more trainees than fully trained workers, Smith said.

The DNA section has three replacements and three new analysts in training, leaving only three fully trained workers. Three of seven drug analysts and four of five fingerprint analysts are also trainees.

Problems may arise if the trained workers are needed to testify in court as expert witnesses, Smith said.

"If the prosecutor doesn't manage their time well, we'll have labs empty for days," he said.

The lab is working to hire more DNA analysts and streamline DNA handling, Smith said. Some DNA analysts now specialize in preparing evidence, while others work solely on analyzing it.

Smith also hopes the state will raise salaries or adjust analysts' benefit packages to help keep workers.

The State Police has also recently signed an agreement with Marshall and West Virginia universities to align the schools' forensics curriculums so they more accurately reflect accredited labs' needs and provide lab internships.

Besides the backlog and staffing issues, money is also an issue. The lab's access to the State Police's overall annual budget of $72 million has not grown proportionally with its workload, Smith said.

State Police spokesman Lt. Mark Neal said now might not be the best time to approach the state Legislature for more money, since a shortfall has been predicted. He said that the State Police is currently working to identify how to meet needs cost-effectively.

The crime lab, accredited by the American Academy of Crime Laboratory Directors, also handles evidence submitted by city police and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

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