With some crime victims in Baltimore County waiting more than an hour for the arrival of evidence collection teams, police officers are filling jobs that had been done by civilians.
County police officials say that they are reluctant to take officers out of precinct stations but that the loss of several civilian employees over the past few years in the crime scene unit gave them no choice.
Crime scene technicians "are just as important as cops in solving crimes," said Col. William A. Kelly, chief of the Police Department's administrative and technical services bureau. "When was the last time we had a homicide conviction without forensic evidence?"
After two months of training, six officers began working with 10 civilians and three supervisors in the crime scene unit this month.
The officers are filling vacancies that have been lingering for years because the county hasn't been able to hire as many technicians as have left - often for better-paying jobs with federal agencies or private labs.
But union officials for the civilian technicians say that by transferring the officers, the county is prolonging the staffing shortage.
Until the county improves the salaries and working conditions of the civilian staff, it will continue to lose technicians, said Jeff Magness, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees.
"The Police Department staffed this unit with civilians for a reason - because they wanted to put more police officers on the street," Magness said. "If you can't fill the positions, you need to look at why and do something about that."
Civilians must have four-year college degrees and are paid about $30,000 to start, compared to police officers who must be four-year department veterans and who earn more than $40,000 starting in the unit.
The county's "forensic services technicians" collect and catalog hairs, fibers, blood and other evidence from about 400 to 700 crime scenes a month. The samples are analyzed by scientists in the county's crime lab on the upper floors of police headquarters in Towson.
In the past two years, five of the six technicians who were hired and two senior technicians have left the crime scene unit. At least two of them took better-paying federal jobs - one with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the other with the FBI, said Irvin B. Litofsky, director of Baltimore County's crime lab.
The vacancies in the unit force those remaining to frequently work overtime. It has also meant longer waits at crime scenes, Kelly said. He said it's not unusual for a burglary victim to wait more than an hour for the unit to arrive to collect evidence.
High turnover also means officers and technicians don't always know each other's procedures well, said Cole Weston, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 4. "In these specialized units, stability is important," he said. "While I don't want to take anything from the civilians who are there and do a great job, if having officers [stabilizes] the unit, that's positive for everyone."
In 1995, Baltimore County's crime scene unit was staffed entirely by police officers. But to save money, keep pace with changes in forensics and return officers to visible patrol positions, the county began replacing officers with civilians. By 1997, all but one officer had been replaced by a civilian technician.
Officer Robert Koch, a 24-year county police veteran, had been working the desk at the Essex precinct when the department sought officers to transfer to the crime scene unit. The former accident investigator signed up.
"You do a lot of the same work - diagramming, photography," he said. "I like the technical side. It's a challenge."
Nationally, most police departments rely on officers to collect the evidence from crime scenes, said Joseph Polski, head of the International Association for Identification, a forensic trade organization based in Minnesota.
"Most police departments are smaller agencies and don't have enough crime scenes to investigate to warrant having a full-time staff," he said.
Despite the popularity of television dramas such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and the introduction of forensic science courses at colleges around the country, crime scene units in the Baltimore area are often troubled by staff shortages.
"Even though the interest is high, not everyone is qualified," Litofsky said.
To supplement its dwindling civilian mobile crime scene unit, Baltimore City police transferred seven officers last year, said crime lab director Edgar Koch.
At the Maryland State Police, officers served as crime scene technicians until a decade ago. "In the last eight years, the emphasis has been putting those officers back on patrol duties," said Jay Tobin, director of the State Police crime lab.
But two troopers remain crime scene technicians today, and another officer works as a firearms examiner, he said.
Crime scenes and evidence in Anne Arundel and Howard counties are processed by civilian staffs.
In Baltimore County, even with the new officers, there are two vacancies in the 21-person unit and two more are expected soon, Litofsky said.
Officials said they have no plans to transfer additional officers because they don't want to shortchange other units.
Police tried last year to temporarily fill vacancies in the crime scene unit by using two officers who had worked in the crime lab before completing their police academy training.
One of the officers - Jennifer Hicks- said civilians and officers working together can improve the quality of the unit.
"It helps the officers see things from the civilian perspective and it helps the civilians see things from an officer's perspective," said Hicks, who worked as a crime scene technician for two years before graduating from the police training academy in June 2001 and becoming a patrol officer. "Where an officer might be looking at evidence to connect a suspect's print to the crime, a civilian might be looking for evidence that connects a shoe to a shoe print."