July 22, 2014
Final Reports
San Mateo Courts - Civil Grand Jury 2000 Final Report: San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory (Crime Lab)
Summary | Background | Findings | Recommendations | Footnotes| Response
Summary:

A grand jury investigation finds, based on an inspection of the premises, a needs assessment of existing facilities, and a site evaluation study, that the San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory building does not meet seismic standards and current health and safety codes. The plumbing system at the San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory dates to 1924 when the building was constructed. The electrical system is marginally functional and not legally grounded. The potential for contaminated and inaccurate evidence is a viable possibility. San Mateo County is a high tech area. The forensics laboratory should be able to serve the entire county with a state-of-the-art building and equipment that reflects and keeps pace with the availability of modern technology.

The grand jury recommends that:

  • The county should build a new, appropriately equipped forensics laboratory that meets all state and federal codes.
  • A high priority should be given to informing San Mateo County voters and the media of the importance of the need for a modern, high tech forensics laboratory in San Mateo County.

Background:

The 1999 Grand Jury, as a result of their grand jury instruction and training, became aware of multiple problems at the San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory (Crime Lab) and began research and investigation into those problems. Shortly after the grand jury began its work, they learned about state Proposition 15 that would bring relief for crime laboratories statewide in the sum of $220,000,000. When the voters did not pass the proposition, it was too late for the 1999 Grand Jury to resume the investigation. Therefore, the 2000-2001 grand jury resumed the investigation.

Currently the San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory is located in a small brick building that was constructed in 1924. The laboratory has been housed there since 1985.

The grand jury made an "on site" inspection in August 2000 of the forensics laboratory and interviewed technicians, the assistant directors, and the director. The grand jury studied two needs assessments surveys, one prepared by Turner Construction Company, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, Earl Walls Associates, and The Warner Group and one by SHG Southwest, Inc., a Smith Group Company. The assessments included a site evaluation study and an assessment of existing facilities. The following conditions exist at the laboratory:

  • The current building does not meet seismic standards.(1)
  • The building does not meet current health and safety codes.(2)
  • A mold (stachybotyris) caused by the underground Crystal Springs aquifer that runs under the building has rendered one-third of the building useless.(3) The mold affects the human respiratory system. The California Identification and Forensics Specialist section, consisting of ten people formerly housed in a 2,500 square foot area, now must work in an 800 square foot area.(3)
  • The plumbing system at the San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory dates to 1924.(4)
  • Water purity is inadequate to analyze evidence; sophisticated equipment requires pure water.(5)
  • The electrical system of the building, built in 1924, is marginally functional and not legally grounded.(6)
  • Due to lack of adequate space, storage of supplies, appliances, office furniture, and forensics evidence obstructs hallways.(7)
  • Hallways are being used as office space and work stations due to lack of storage space.(8)
  • Air ducts in space allocated for the drying of crucial evidence -- blood and body fluid, stained clothing, and other biologically contaminated evidence -- vent improperly, causing offensive odors and contaminating the working environment.(9)
  • Records management systems' software specific to forensics detail and reporting does not interface with the appropriate networks, causing a great inefficiency and waste of human resources.(10)
  • There is no garage for the forensics laboratory's vehicles. Crime scene vehicles are old, outdated, too small, and insufficient in number.(11)
  • The ventilation system is completely inadequate and illegal. Vents, that should be 20 feet above roof level, vent at window level on the top floor where administration offices are located.(12)
  • There is insufficient storage for rifles, pistols, and shotguns being held for evidence and staff research, and the firing range used for ballistics testing is inadequate.(13)

If the current building is inadequate, sending cases to the state and FBI crime laboratories would seem to be a partial solution. Unfortunately, the state and FBI backlog of cases is such that evidence submitted for analysis cannot be processed in a timely fashion.(14)

The use of private laboratories over county laboratories also seems to offer a logical solution. However, numerous areas of concern about private laboratories have been expressed by the American Society of Crime Laboratories Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board, the national oversight organization charged with accrediting America's forensic science laboratories.

Private clinic technicians do not have the special training required for criminologists. The expertise needed to operate area-specific, sophisticated equipment is inadequate. The cost of analyzing so many pieces of evidence through private laboratories would be prohibitive, and private laboratory technicians testifying in court would cost $200 per hour and $2,000 for a full day. Confidential and sensitive materials would be out of the control of qualified county personnel, creating a confidentiality issue. Private laboratories do not work twenty-four hours a day as required by an operational crime laboratory to do on-scene work. Crime laboratory evidence and materials are not common to private laboratories. There would also be a loss of continuity and consistency due to unfamiliar materials not common to private laboratories.(15)

Findings:

The grand jury concludes that the county needs a new crime laboratory facility with equipment appropriate to its function. The building's physical condition contributes to the crime laboratory's inability to adequately serve San Mateo County.(16) The county has the obligation to serve 22 police agencies, all incorporated fire departments, the California Department of Forestry, and the Juvenile and Adult Probation Departments. With the outmoded electrical and plumbing systems, insufficient space, and illegal ventilation system, the potential for contaminated and inaccurate evidence is a viable possibility. In addition, the mold (stachybotyris) endangers employees' health and may cause severe health problems.(17)

Recommendations:


Recommendation 3.1

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors should take all necessary steps to ensure the building of a new county forensics laboratory that meets all seismic standards, federal and state standards for forensic science laboratories, the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, and all health and safety codes.


Recommendation 3.2

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors should collaborate with the director of the San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory and the county sheriff to ensure that the appropriate equipment needed in a high-tech forensics laboratory is provided for in the new building.


Recommendation 3.3

The San Mateo County sheriff, the director of the Forensics Laboratory, and the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors should give high priority to informing San Mateo County voters and the media of the importance of a modern, high tech forensics laboratory in San Mateo County.

Footnotes:
  1. Turner Construction Company; Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, Inc.; Earl Walls Associates, The Warner Group, Needs Assessment Design Program and Site Evaluation Study, p. 18, paragraph 1; November 7, 1999. (SHG Southwest, Inc., A Smith Group Company, Assessment of Existing Facilities, p. 4, Section A, #3, July 13, 1998.)
  2. Ibid., p. 18, "Facility Limitations," paragraph 2. (SHG, p. 6, Section C.)
  3. Ibid., p. 18, "Facility Limitations," paragraph 2. (SHG, p. 5, Section B.)
  4. Ibid., p. 17, "Facility Limitations." (SHG, p. 8, Section C, #11; p. 9, Section D, #7.)
  5. Ibid., p. 17, "Facility Limitations."
  6. Ibid., p. 17, "Facility Limitations." (SHG, p. 8, Section C, #11; p. 9, Section D, #7.)
  7. Ibid., p. 19, "Adjacencies and Functionality Issues of Existing Operations." (SHG, p. 9, Section D, #6; p. 11, Section H, #5.)
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., p. 17, "Facility Limitations," p. 20, "Forensic Laboratory Design Goals." (SHG, p. 6, Section C; p. 7, Section C, #4; p.12, #6.)
  10. Ibid., p. 19, "Laboratory Systems Issues of Existing Operations," Bullet 1.
  11. Ibid., p. 17, "Facility Limitations," paragraph 1; p. 19, "Adjacencies and Functionality Issues of Existing Operations," Bullet 5, "Missing Functional Components." (SHG, p. 13, Section H, #12.)
  12. Ibid., p. 17, "Facility Limitations," paragraphs 1 and 2; p. 20, "Laboratory Systems Issues of Existing Operations," Bullet 2.
  13. Ibid., p. 19, "Missing Functional Components," #1. (SHG, p. 11, Section H, #1, 2, 3.)
  14. Interview with director of San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory and supervising criminalists
  15. Interview with director of San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory
  16. Turner et al, p. 17, "Existing Operations/Locations, Facility Limitations." (SHG, p. 4, Sections A and B.)
  17. Ibid., p. 18, "Facility Limitations," paragraphs 2 and 3. (SHG, p. 6, Section C, p. 7, Section C, #2.)
RESPONSE TO 2000-01 SAN MATEO COUNTY CIVIL GRAND JURY REPORT-
SAN MATEO COUNTY FORENSICS LABORATORY (CRIME LAB)

January 29, 2001

Recommendation 3.1

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors should take all necessary steps to ensure the building of a new county forensics laboratory that meets all seismic standards, federal and state standards for forensic science laboratories, the Americans With Disabilities Act requirements, and all health and safety codes.

Response to Recommendation 3.1

The Board of Supervisors, County Manager's Office and the Sheriff have worked extensively to inventory the deficiencies of the existing Forensics Laboratory; identify a site location, facility program plan, and a construction solution for a replacement facility; and supported both state and local legislation to provide bond financing for the proposed facility. A chronology of major milestones is useful:

July, 1998 - A brief preliminary study of the existing laboratory facility is commissioned and completed by SHG Southwest, Inc., entitled Sheriff's Forensic Laboratory: Assessment of Existing Facilities. This early report lays the groundwork for more extensive analysis and design work over the next two years.

January, 1999 - A Working Committee to find solutions for the Forensics Laboratory problem is formed and begins meeting. The Committee was composed of representatives from the Sheriff's Office, County Manager's Office - Facilities Planning, Public Works Department, and eventually came to include additional representatives from the Coroner's Office, Public Safety Communications Division, and Office of Emergency Services.

March 30, 1999 - the Board of Supervisors reviews a report from the Sheriff detailing the need for replacement or rebuilding of the existing forensic laboratory, and approves the release of an Request For Proposals (RFP) for a Needs Assessment, Site Evaluation and Design/Cost Study for the Laboratory.

July 13, 1999 - The Board of Supervisors adopts Resolution 62958, authorizing execution of an Agreement with Turner Construction Company & Associates for the forensic laboratory study, in the amount of $193,500.

July - December, 1999 - Turner Construction completes work on the project design report, in conjunction with their associates on the project, the architectural firm of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, Inc.; Earl Walls Associates (crime lab design specialists); and the Warner Group (communications specialists). The study proposes two options for the Board of Supervisor's consideration: a consolidated Forensic Laboratory/Emergency Services Complex located in the Redwood City County Government Center campus, or a Forensic Laboratory (with Coroner's Office space) at the Crystal Springs Tower Road campus.

December 7th, 1999 - the Board of Supervisors accepts the Turner report, and indicates preliminary preference for the Redwood City consolidated Complex option. The project team is directed to return with site/facility design documents and financing options for the project.

February 20, 2000 - the Board of Supervisors approves Resolution 63450, authorizing an amendment to the existing contract with Turner Construction for the preparation of more detailed design documents, pending the outcome of an evaluation of financing options, primary among which is a bond measure.

March, 2000 - Proposition 15 is on the March statewide Primary Election ballot, which would provide statewide funding for renovation of County Forensics laboratories. The ballot measure unfortunately fails statewide, although it passes in San Mateo County by a 54% to 46% vote.

August 8, 2000 - The Board of Supervisors adopts Resolution 63835, calling for a County bond election on the November ballot for the proposition of financing $13 Million in bonded indebtedness for the construction of a forensics laboratory.

November, 2000 - the November Presidential Ballot for San Mateo County contains Measure B, which is endorsed by the Sheriff, the District Attorney, the Board of Supervisors, and the County Police Chiefs. There are no printed ballot arguments in opposition to Measure B.

Recommendation 3.2

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors should collaborate with the director of the San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory and the county Sheriff to ensure that the appropriate equipment needed in a high-tech forensics laboratory building is provided for in the new building.

Response to Recommendation 3.2

The November, 1999 Needs Assessment, Design Program and Site Evaluation report prepared by Turner Construction and Associates includes an inventory and estimates for fornsic lab furnishings and moveable equipment. The cost estimate is approximately $1.1 million. Additionally, certain existing equipment at the current lab, some of which is relatively new, would also be relocated to a new facility.


Recommendation 3.3

The San Mateo County Sheriff, the director of the Forensics Laboratory, and the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors should give high priority to informing San Mateo County voters and the media of the importance of a modern, high-tech forensics laboratory in San Mateo County.

Response to Recommendation 3.3

An extensive speaking tour and media campaign has been mounted in support of Measure B through the work of the independent San Mateo County Citizens for Crime Reduction - YES on Measure B Committee. This includes full-page endorsements by the principal law enforcement and legislative supporters, and speaking appearances before virtually every public, private and non-profit group in the County. Additionally, several newspapers and a local television station have run articles and stories featuring the Lab, and pointing out the need for a new facility. The editorial boards of local media have supported Measure B.

© 2014 Superior Court of San Mateo County