Saturday, April 03, 2010

Training the Lab Techs

The local media have been full of the situation at the San Francisco Crime Lab lately.  For you out-of-state people, SFPD discovered that one of their drug analysts may have been poaching the evidence, which led them to realize that a number of other things were wrong.  The best summary I've seen recently is in this post from - I'm not surprised that the professionals have an eye on this.

In one sense, this is off my turf; I don't live in San Francisco.  But I do live in a town with major budget problems and an understaffed police department.

The situation was discussed for an hour last week on Michael Krasny's Forum, on KQED-FM.  As I listened, I heard several people comment that the lab had some of the latest greatest analytical equipment, but they'd never turned it on; they hadn't even calibrated it.  The panelists spoke as if this was some inexplicable, possibly even deliberate, failure by the staff.  "They kept using their older, less accurate methods."  

Nobody on the panel seemed to understand why this should be.  I can explain it, and it's very simple.  This lab had 3 people doing the work of at least a dozen, against absurdly short deadlines (48 hours; read the summary).  They had the latest equipment because somebody in the city-and-county arranged funding for the latest equipment - but the staff couldn't spare the time to get trained on it!  With only 3 people handling between 13 and 19 cases a day, when the norm is around 2 per day, they barely had time to go to the bathroom!  I'm not surprised that their lab protocols were sloppy and their records weren't kept properly.  I'm not even surprised that amounts of cocaine somehow "disappeared."

The only good thing about this mess is that Chief Gascon has taken full responsibility for it.  But I hope the city budgeters, here and elsewhere, can remember that it does no good to buy the latest, fanciest equipment for a staff so overwhelmed it will never have time to learn how to use it.


  1. When the federal government began to computerize, in the 1970's, going forward there was the continual urge to justify staffing cuts by claiming that computers were the new short-hand, the labor-saving miracles of the future. But, as was soon discovered, it took two people to service a piece of computer data, where it had only taken one previously to do it on paper. The software was so difficult--what is commonly referred to as "user-unfriendly"--that a new hybrid expertise was needed ("computer literates"), requiring all kinds of advance training and time allotments. Where there had been "secretaries" we now had "technical units"--cadres of people whose only job was to "translate" raw data into computer-compatible language. Everyone made lots of mistakes, and the more mistakes we made, the worse the computer technology made it. And they were always "updating" and "revising" and "improving" the data-base, the hardware, the programming. Oh, joy, each month there'd be a new cycle of reminders and changes and warnings. And every time a case "excepted" from the system, it had to have special handling and exception processing. Pretty soon, there had to be special units to handle all these "exceptional" cases which the system had not been able to accommodate.

    What a headache!

    So we'd staff down and there'd be fewer folks to do more work, instead of less. And we'd all be working overtime, to make up the shortfall. Perish the thought! Overtime abuse! And the clientele getting fed up with the delays and excuses!

    Fancy equipment. Oh, yeah!...

  2. Moving procedures from paper to computer just moves the work around. It's easier to find information in a computer, in general, than in a paper file; at least now that full-text search algorithms are available. But as you observe, it's harder to enter the information, because computers are quite dumb and have to have the information presented in a very specific way. (Ask me about it; I'm redesigning a database for the Oakland Symphony Chorus...)

    On the other hand, automated banking procedures did indeed put an entire employment class, the manual bookkeeper, essentially out of business (at least in banks); and online banking is sharply reducing the market for tellers, although I don't expect tellers to go away entirely until the Greatest Generation finally dies off, as they tend to be the ones who like to talk to the teller.