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‘Serious questions’ raised by reports on problems inside Baltimore Police crime lab, councilman says

The chair of the Baltimore City Council’s public safety committee said recent reports about problems with the police department crime lab raise “serious questions about [its] internal controls and oversight.”

Chairman Mark Conway said he is asking the Baltimore Police Department to provide a full, written explanation to address two articles that appeared last week in The Baltimore Sun.

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In the first, an active supervisor in the fingerprint section spoke out, saying the lab is failing to analyze thousands of pieces of evidence due to its triage approach that focuses on violent crime. Separately, police confirmed that a veteran firearms examiner’s work over a nine-month period has been called into question after a problem was discovered in the swabbing of evidence on firearms.

“I am asking the department to provide a full written explanation of these two issues, and what they are doing to address them, to the public and our committee by Friday,” Conway said in a statement. “The notion that we have lost — or failed to test — evidence is concerning given our fight against crime.”

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Baltimore City Councilman Mark Conway said he has "serious questions" about potential problems in the police crime lab after recent reports in The Baltimore Sun.
Baltimore City Councilman Mark Conway said he has "serious questions" about potential problems in the police crime lab after recent reports in The Baltimore Sun. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Veteran fingerprint supervisor Ken Phillips said he wants to appear at a council hearing to discuss the matter.

“I believe the matter needs to get out of the police department at some sort of official hearing,” he said Monday. “The pattern has been not to investigate this.”

A spokeswoman for City Council President Nick Mosby said he was awaiting more information from the police department “before determining what next steps may be appropriate.”

Phillips has been trying to raise alarms internally for months before going public with his concerns, writing a letter to Mayor Brandon Scott, and filing complaints with the Office of the Inspector General and his own department.

“I believe the citizens’ right to know about serious mismanagement and waste of public funds outweighs any supposed interest the BPD may have in keeping these matters confidential,” Phillips told Scott in an April 11 letter.

Experts say backlogs are not uncommon in big cities, with departments forced to prioritize due to a lack of funds. But Phillips said Baltimore police don’t acknowledge the size of the untouched caseload. As of July 20, the crime lab reported a backlog of 894 fingerprint cases.

Roy Jones, a retired fingerprint examiner, said he left in 2019 over frustrations with the lab’s policies and leadership. He said the only way a property crime gets processed is if “you know somebody in the police department or insisted on your case getting done.”

“It wasn’t sitting well with me, so I left,” Jones said.

The police department responded with a statement, saying it took Phillips’ complaint seriously and that the Maryland Department of Health and the American National Standards Institute’s accreditation board looked into it and “did not have any negative findings on the department’s process and policies.”

“The department will continue to work in addressing the back log of cases, and staff shortages in our Crime Lab, while prioritizing violent crimes and evidence in these cases,” the statement said.

Separately, police said an error was discovered in a firearms examiner’s work in April, related to the swabbing of evidence on firearms. All swabbing was stopped to conduct an audit of the examiner’s work and determine whether it was an isolated incident, isolated to the one examiner, or systemic.

“It was determined through an extensive investigation that it was limited to the single examiner and that the swabs conducted could be compromised,” Eldridge said last week.

Cal Harris, director of communications for Scott, said Monday that the mayor was aware of the potentially compromised evidence. He said the problem was “uncovered thanks to increased protocols and accountability measures” and that Scott would “continue to work with Commissioner Michael Harrison to safeguard quality assurance and improve transparency within the department.

The examiner was identified as Victor Meinhardt in an email circulated within the State’s Attorney’s Office late last month in an effort to identify cases he was connected to. Zy Richardson, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, said officials there “recently became aware of BPD’s findings and are currently in the process of evaluating whether it has any material impact on our cases.”

Meinhardt had previously been removed from performing evidence analysis in late 2017, as the result of a misidentification error, according to an internal crime lab report viewed by The Sun.

The Maryland Public Defender’s Office said prosecutors had not informed them of the issues — and should have.

“Without question, problems with a firearm examiner’s work must be provided to defense counsel in cases involving that examiner, but we do not know of any recent disclosures,” said Deborah Katz Levi, director of the office’s special litigation section. “The failure of the State’s Attorney’s Office to disclose problems, as required, exacerbates the risks of lengthy, unjust incarceration and denies a fair trial.”

The Baltimore crime lab has a budget of $22.7 million this fiscal year, up from $19.8 million fiscal year 2019, while the number of positions has declined by 15 during that time, to 173 employees.

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