By Mary Alice Casey
The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation (BCI) is working to reduce lab turnaround times for DNA testing by streamlining processes, adding staff, and increasing the use of technology.
With those steps — and efforts by law enforcement to ensure all necessary information and reference standards are supplied when evidence is first submitted — Attorney General Mike DeWine hopes to dramatically reduce the time it takes to get results to local officials.
“Thanks to the outstanding efforts of the BCI staff, the excellent lab work they routinely perform for the men and women on the front lines of law enforcement will be completed and delivered more quickly and with fewer delays,” DeWine said.
Of course, improving efficiency — while important on its own — is most meaningful when it serves a larger purpose, said Superintendent Tom Stickrath, whom DeWine chose to head BCI after previously leading the Ohio departments of Public Safety and Youth Services.
“It’s not just a bureaucracy that we’re trying to make better or a dollar that we’re trying to save,” he said. “It’s all about public safety.”
BCI’s Forensic Biology and DNA units made significant progress in the effort when staffers spent five days this spring analyzing procedures and identifying redundancies and unnecessary steps. The result: a process that eliminates 103 steps, 26 handoffs, and 35 decisions.
While some of those efficiencies will take time to put in place, Stickrath is impressed by his staff’s commitment.
“There’s a culture change that’s developing, a whole awareness about the speed with which we turn evidence around,” he said. “And the fact that it’s being done from within is very exciting. This was not some consultant coming in and saying, ‘Do it A, B, C, D way.’ This was our staff introspectively looking at its work. To watch that team in action that week was profound.”
At the close of 2010, BCI took an average of 125 days to complete DNA testing on biological evidence and get results to local authorities. With a streamlined process and cooperation from local law enforcement, staff members see the potential to cut that significantly.
BCI took a page from the private sector in evaluating how evidence flows from Evidence Receiving through the Forensic Biology and DNA units and on to the reporting stage. Staffers’ analysis relied on a process derived from the Japanese concept of Kaizen, which means “change for the better.” It uses specific methodologies to achieve efficiencies, savings, and customer satisfaction. The meetings were facilitated by the Ohio Department of Administrative Services’ Lean Ohio Program Office.
Elizabeth Benzinger, the bureau’s DNA quality assurance manager, has been with BCI for 15 years. She came on board to establish the DNA lab, which began accepting evidence in 1998, and took her current position in 2004.
Benzinger said staff members concluded that one key to shortening turnaround times is to work a case from beginning to end without interruption. That means ensuring that all necessary information and elements are available when work commences.
“We are changing our processes significantly so that cases aren’t sitting in various queues,” she said. “Once a sample is in the system, we’ll push it through to the end. To do that, we need law enforcement to bring us cases that are ready to work.”
BCI’s efforts to eliminate bottlenecks in its DNA testing, if successful, will break new ground.
“Backlog is a problem for every agency that works DNA,” she said. “Ten or 12 years ago, people were skeptical of DNA. Through the popular media, it has become an everyday topic, and juries expect to see it in just about every case. The demand has exceeded the capacity of testing agencies.”
Benzinger noted that the National Institute of Justice has directed millions of dollars in grant funding to help agencies become more efficient at DNA testing. Like other labs, BCI has spent much of its share on robotics, which Benzinger said is making a huge impact.
“It used to be that working DNA was a very time-consuming endeavor involving lots of hands-on time in the lab,” she said. “Now, with automation, we can work many more samples more rapidly. As we have gained experience with the robots, we have challenged them to do more. They now play a role in all DNA cases.”
As BCI’s labs take greater advantage of the robots’ capacity, which Benzinger said is virtually unlimited, they also are bringing new DNA analyzers on line to speed up the process.
Greater reliance on technology will affect the reporting process as well. The bureau is working to reduce paper reports and instead provide investigators and prosecutors with results by secure download from the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway. The change will cut days from the process and an estimated $57,000 a year in paper and postage costs. In addition, information confirming the presence of biological material on evidence will be rolled into the final report, saving another step.
“We want to be paperless,” Benzinger said, “but we’re approaching it gradually because we realize many agencies are not set up to be part of a paperless system.”
Sufficient staffing is another important part of the puzzle. DeWine has authorized BCI to add a total of eight forensic scientists, lab support personnel, and clerical staff, all of whom should be on board by fall.
“With every new piece of technology we add and every new position we fill, we are looking to reduce our turnaround times,” Benzinger said. “And in the future, if there is a tool or method to reduce turnaround times further, we’re going to pursue it.”
Stickrath agrees, noting that he wants his staff’s reputation for speed and efficiency to parallel its reputation for quality.
“I get letters every week from law enforcement and prosecutors on the quality of our work,” he said. “If we can continue the high level of quality that our lab is known for and — at the same time — see improvements in the time it takes to get evidence back to our partners, that will be significant.”
Mary Alice Casey is a senior editor with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.