Baltimore’s procurement process caused backlogs in the Baltimore Police Department’s forensic laboratory, hindering lab testing and analysis, according to a city audit completed earlier this year.
The “absence of timely procurement” led to lengthy wait times — often more than a year — for some maintenance agreements and criminal laboratory products, including DNA investigative kits, consumables and reagents, according to the city’s Department of Audits.
In one instance last year, the police agency was forced to borrow supplies from another jurisdiction, the audit said.
Baltimore Police did not provide specific examples of consequences, but said in an emailed statement that it, like other agencies across the country, is navigating “supply chain challenges” that have delayed “critical supplies” for the crime lab.
“BPD was able to borrow materials from another neighboring lab to continue the work of processing evidence for investigations as we navigated the procurement process,” wrote department spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge, adding that BPD has both “shared and received items to assist in investigative processes” in the past.
The audit initially sought to examine whether the police crime lab had effective processes and controls around its testing. It subsequently was expanded to include the city’s Bureau of Procurement, where auditors found issues including lag times in processing purchase requests or agreements, mid-stream changes in methods and faulty vendor awards.
Auditors looked at the fiscal years ending in 2020 and 2021, though many of the requisitions it traced were pushed into 2022. The backlogs caused by procurement issues “increased significantly during 2022,” the audit said.
Baltimore Comptroller Bill Henry praised his audit team for “digging down to the root” of the issue and said the report shows how procurement issues, which he said have been “building for years,” can have “real, tangible and dangerous implications.”
“BPD did everything correctly, yet even their proactive approach still left them in a precarious situation,” Henry said. “It’s incredibly urgent that we address our procurement process and reshape how the City does business.”
The Bureau of Procurement did not respond to an emailed request for comment. The Department of Finance, which includes the bureau, agreed in the audit to implement auditors’ recommendations.
It took months for BPD to get final approval on some of its requests, according to the audit, despite an Administrative Manual’s estimate that purchasing lead times would average 90 days for items or contracts worth more than $50,000 and fewer days for smaller amounts. One requisition took 14 months. Another was approved by the Bureau of Budget and Management in March 2021 but not finally approved until June 21, 2022, nine days before grant funding was set to expire.
In another case, the Bureau of Procurement awarded a contract to a vendor that didn’t meet a technical requirement to be certified by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The product was returned to the vendor and BPD separately procured a properly certified product.
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The audit attributed the Bureau of Procurement’s delays to high staff turnover and what it called “competing priorities,” such as other agencies’ needs and the transition of platforms.
It also noted that the agency didn’t have a process for prioritizing older procurements. Monitoring those “aging reports” and discussing them with police officials in weekly meetings would be important to “manage workload, especially with limited staffing,” the audit found.
Recommendations the Department of Finance agreed to implement included following procurement requirements from Baltimore Police, filling vacant positions and prioritizing aging or critical requests. The department said it plans to complete an initial recruitment plan by next month and that it is reviewing open tickets and existing reports.
Baltimore Police, meanwhile, lacked a policy and timeline for when and how it would escalate concerns about procurement delays to officials, the audit found.
In a memo to the mayor’s office, Baltimore Police wrote it would formalize the escalation process, as recommended. In response to another recommendation to consider longer contracts, the agency said it would “very much appreciate” that but has been following the approval of the Bureau of Procurement.
“We have committed to working with the [Bureau of Procurement] to clarify which contracts would be eligible for longer terms,” the memo from Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said.
Baltimore is in the midst of studying its procurement process, which has long been criticized for lengthy delays and a lack of accountability measures. The city signed a $356,000 contract with Civic Initiatives in January 2022 to complete the study. Former City Administrator Chris Shorter told The Baltimore Sun late last year that the vendor was supposed to provide a “road map” for improvements by the end of 2022.