Emails: St. Paul police slow to respond to crime lab crisisby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith and other top police officials were slow to respond to the crime lab crisis even as public defenders threw the lab's operations into question by challenging evidence in several drug cases.
More than 5,000 pages of internal police documents also show crime lab employees were taken off guard by basic questions from public defenders about the drug testing they performed at the lab. The St. Paul Police Department released the documents, which include emails from June to August, in response to a data request filed by MPR News.
The emails indicate top police officials did not fully comprehend the severity of the problems at the lab for months, despite receiving emails about the lack of validation studies and the risk of contamination at the lab. In the days leading up to damaging testimony by lab employees in Dakota County District Court, Smith delayed a meeting with a senior police commander who wanted to talk about the crime lab.
''Put it off until next week,'' Smith said in a July 12 email to assistant Julia Rust. ''This does not have to be addressed tomorrow.''
Rust replied, ''It might need to be addressed tomorrow because it involves a court case Monday morning. I have the details if you want to call me. Don't want to put it in an email.''
CRIME LAB EMAILS
• Smith delayed a meeting with a senior police commander
• One of the few police officials to send an email expressing alarm
• Email from criminal division director at the county attorney's office
• Lab workers appeared to do little to ensure their methods were
• Lack of knowledge is further documented in several emails
• 'Who at the BCA handles your [Standard Operating Procedures]?'
• Detailed recommendations on how to improve the lab
• Jannetto also reviewed standard operating procedures from other labs
St. Paul Police Sgt. Greg Gravesen was one of the few police officials to send an email expressing alarm about the looming hearing, but his concerns were dismissed.
''I think this is going to be REALLY, REALLY bad,'' Gravesen told Assistant Chief Kathy Wuorinen in an email on July 12.
Wuorinen disagreed. ''On the crime lab. I do not think things are bad,'' she wrote in a July 13 email. ''This whole court process will take months. We have our experts and they have theirs.''
The problems at the lab first came to light earlier this year when public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk began asking questions about the St. Paul lab's drug testing methods in a drug case. Those questions led to a legal battle in Dakota County District Court where the public defenders asked a judge to block evidence from the crime lab because they claim it is not scientifically reliable. The hearing is ongoing and a decision is not expected for several months.
Smith did not take decisive action to address the problems until crime lab employees testified on July 16 and 17 that they did not follow any written standard operating procedures and may have relied on equipment clogged with cocaine to test evidence for the presence of illegal drugs. Smith suspended drug testing at the lab on July 19, appointed a new lab director and launched an internal investigation.
The emails provide few clues as to when Smith was notified about the problems at the lab or whether he inquired about how the lab conducted its drug testing. Smith has previously said he did not learn of the severity of the problems until the week before testimony began in July.
St. Paul Police spokesperson Howie Padilla said Smith was not available for immediate comment. ''What we're trying to do is just fact check and find out what everybody wants to know, which is who knew what when,'' Padilla said. ''And that's what our administrative review is trying to find out.''
It's also unclear whether the idea to shut down drug testing at the lab came from Smith or someone else.
On the second day of testimony, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi called Smith to discuss the crime lab and how the police chief planned to respond. Smith ''asked for him [Choi] to stay quiet on this,'' according to an email Smith sent to an assistant police chief.
In an interview with MPR News on Friday, Choi confirmed the timing of the call, but declined to provide details of the conversation. However, he said the police chief did not ask him to keep quiet about any problems at the lab.
''I left that conversation with full confidence that the chief would do the right thing and take appropriate action,'' Choi said. ''And within 24 hours he was announcing that he was going to suspend the crime lab operation as it related to narcotics. So I guess the public can imagine what occurred during that conversation, but at the end of the day, the right thing was done.''
The closure of the St. Paul crime lab's drug testing unit threw hundreds of cases into question, as the lab provided drug testing for Ramsey, Washington and Dakota Counties and the Minnesota State Patrol. In response, prosecutors asked the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a state-run, accredited crime lab, to retest evidence from the St. Paul lab.
Documents show Richard Dusterhoft, criminal division director at the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, realized immediately the lab problems could lead to appeals by people convicted of drug possession. He sent an urgent email to the new crime lab director, Colleen Luna, on the same day the lab stopped drug testing.
''Effective like now, can you put the ka-bosh on destroying ANY controlled substances for the foreseeable future?'' he wrote. ''I expect a slew of post conviction motions and, to the extent possible, we may have to have confirmatory tests done. Don't want to destroy what we still might have around.''
The documents do not shed light on whether anyone in the police department was concerned that sloppy paperwork and questionable scientific techniques might extend to other areas in the lab, including fingerprint testing and crime scene processing.
Confusion, concern as crime lab employees reacted to accusations
Lab workers appeared to do little to ensure their methods were valid until public defenders started asking questions. In some cases, employees waited until after the hearing to ask other agencies about the reliability of the lab's testing.
In court, Sgt. Shay Shackle, the crime lab director who was later removed from his position, testified that he did not understand how the lab's machines worked and was not aware of national recommendations for crime labs. His lack of knowledge is further documented in several emails, including one in which he requested information about whether the lab had passed any audits by police inspectors.
Chief Inspector Kevin Reinke told Shackle the lab passed random audits of ten cases - five in 2009 and five in 2010. Inspectors did not audit any cases in 2011 or 2012, Reinke wrote.
The documents released by the St. Paul Police Department include standard operating procedures created in 1996 and revised in 2000. However, it's clear from emails and court testimony that none of the lab employees or top police officials involved in the case knew the procedures existed.
In a June 18 email to a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension official, Shackle, the crime lab director, asked, ''Who at the BCA handles your SOP's [Standard Operating Procedures]? We are almost done formally documenting ours and were wondering if they could review our draft?''
However, at least two employees pressed for changes at the lab as the hearing date approached, according to emails.
A month before the hearing, Senior Criminalist Jennifer Jannetto provided Wuorinen, the assistant police chief, with detailed recommendations on how to improve the lab. She encouraged the police department to send two crime lab employees to a drug chemistry conference.
''I've been monitoring our budget and from my point of view, there seems to be quite a bit of money in there (at least 7K) that we can put forth for training expenses,'' she wrote in a June 22 email. ''Though every time I bring up the budget with [crime lab director] Shay [Shackle] he seems to think we don't have enough. Is it possible to sit down and go over it with everyone so we are all on the same page?''
Jannetto also reviewed standard operating procedures from other labs, consulted with an FBI official and met with forensic experts at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul to review a draft version of the lab's standard operating procedures.
''It means a lot to me, as well as our entire Lab, that the BCA is so willing to help," she wrote in a July 9 email to two state crime lab employees. "Hopefully when the hearing is over, regardless of the result, we can work together towards some sort of accreditation here in St. Paul."
Police Officer Jamie Sipes, who also works in the crime lab, contacted law enforcement agencies around the country and asked for advice about standard operating procedures and accreditation. Sipes detailed his findings in a report he titled "The Question of Accreditation." He sent the report and related information to Wuorinen on June 15.
Wuorinen responded with an email praising Sipes. "I know that it take hours (no days...or even weeks) to thoroughly research all the information you put into the powerpoint and the Accreditation document," she wrote. "You and your work are very Impressive."
The lab remains unaccredited.
Padilla, the police spokesperson, said the department does not know whether the lab will apply for accreditation or when it will reopen. The internal investigation into the lab's operations is ongoing, he said.