New hires, robotics eliminate FBI DNA backlog

Friday - 9/23/2011, 8:08pm EDT

DoJ Acting IG Cynthia Schnedar speaking with WFED's Ruben Gomez

Download mp3

By Ruben Gomez
Reporter
Federal News Radio

The FBI has eliminated a backlog of more than 300,000 DNA samples, with help from a new cadre of employees, contractors and robotics, the agency's top auditor told Federal News Radio.

The bureau's Federal DNA Database Unit hired 28 new employees to upload more than 312,000 DNA samples into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), according to a report from the Justice Department's inspector general's office. The FBI collected the DNA from federal convicted offenders, arrestees and detainees.

Law enforcement uses the database to find DNA profiles that might help solve unresolved cases or cases without a suspect.

The DNA Database Unit also added 11 contractors to help with the backlog, the report said.

"There are those who help get the samples ready to be run through the system, and then you have analysts at the end who have to carefully review [the work]," said acting inspector general Cynthia Schnedar in an interview with Federal News Radio. "And then they have a second review - a quality-check review - to make sure that the analysis is done correctly."

The FBI also used high-throughput robotics capable of processing up to 850 DNA samples in two-and-a-half hours, investigators said. The bureau also reconfigured laboratory space and installed software for semi-automated review of samples before being uploaded to the database.

The FBI now processes 60,000 profiles per month because of the improvements, the report said.

"Between January 2004 and December 2009, the Federal DNA Database Unit only was able to upload to CODIS an average of approximately 1,700 samples per month," auditors said.

The backlog formed primarily because of new laws that expanded the scope of DNA sample collection, the report said. The FBI now collects DNA from anyone arrested under federal authority, people convicted of federal offenses and non-U.S. citizens detained in the country. Previously, the bureau collected samples from violent convicted federal offenders

The FBI implemented two plans to address the convicted offender, arrestee, and detainee backlog, which gave the FBI tangible goals and milestones to reduce its backlog.

Schnedar praised the FBI for aggressively tackling the backlog but also hinted the bureau may need to hire additional analysts to prevent another backlog, because the number of DNA samples collected from non-U.S. citizens detained in the U.S. may grow in the coming years.

Despite the improvements, the inspector general's office found a number shortfalls in the FBI's DNA processing system.

For one, the report said, the bureau does not have documented policies, procedures and reporting methods to ensure analysts report backlog and workload levels to management.

"The lack of written policies and procedures can also cause inconsistent calculations and affect the ability to compare statistics over a period of time," according to the report.

Auditors also found problems with long-term storage of DNA samples, which the FBI keeps indefinitely in case analysts need to retest a sample to confirm a match. The FBI laboratory anticipates storing 1 million samples by the end of the calendar year.

" Currently, some samples are stored in the basement of the FBI Laboratory in boxes stacked from the floor to the ceiling," auditors said. "The FBI is in the process of procuring high density storage units and is considering long-term storage options, including off-site locations. However, these two initiatives are still in the planning stages."

Recommendations

The inspector general recommended three steps to help the FBI address the shortfalls:

  • Develop and implement policies and procedures that document the methodology used to report workload statistics and backlog calculations.
  • Coordinate with the Homeland Security Department "to determine the criteria used to collect and submit detainee DNA samples, and if appropriate, revise estimates for monthly sample receipt so the FBI Laboratory can plan for any influx of detainee DNA samples."
  • Finalize a long-term plan for DNA sample storage space.

The FBI agreed with all three of the acting inspector's recommendations.

"As noted, the FBI has achieved a 'significant accomplishment' in reducing this backlog to a manageable monthly workload," wrote Jennifer Smith Love, acting assistant director of the FBI's Inspection Division, in a letter to the inspector general. "The FBI remains committed to ensuring accepted DNA samples are promptly processed and submitted into the Combined DNA Index System."

Up next on the inspector general agenda is an unresolved backlog of forensic DNA samples, which law enforcement collects at crime scenes.

"Those are more difficult to analyze, because they can't be done with robotics," Schnedar said. "They take more individual input."