The Lead

Philly cops get $5M funding boost for forensics office

By: - January 18, 2022 12:35 pm

(Image via Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Brian Saunders

PHILADELPHIA —  City police have secured an additional $5 million in funds for the fiscal 2022 budget to enhance the department’s forensics capabilities.

“The units of the Office of Forensic Science are responsible for providing high quality and timely forensic services, achieved through accurate, unbiased and reliable collection, preservation, examination, analysis, and interpretation of evidence, to exonerate the innocent, identify true perpetrators of crime, establish crime patterns, and assist in solving and preventing crime,” said Michael Garvey, director of the Office of Forensic Science (OFS).

According to Garvey, the funds will enhance how the OFS processes evidence from crime scenes. The office will also get new 3-D laser scanners that will help the unit conduct reconstructions and prepare demonstrative evidence for investigators.

“The Firearms Identification Unit will expand its nationally recognized program with the addition of a BulletTrax system and Quantum 3-D comparison microscope that will improve the ability to analyze projectiles recovered at crime scenes,” Garvey said. “Additional instruments for drug analyses will enable the Chemistry Unit to analyze more drug evidence. Enhancements in digital forensics will expand the Digital Media Evidence Unit’s ability to examine encrypted cellphones, which often contain large amounts of evidentiary data.”

Garvey said that improving DNA technology will increase the unit’s ability to examine more evidence, including low-level samples that were previously unable to be analyzed.

“Additionally, automated robotic systems will be validated and implemented to increase the laboratory capacity,” he said.

Garvey said that the Philadelphia Police Department and OFS are among the labs across the nation that have emphasized the importance of objective and reliable forensic evidence as an element of intelligence-led policing and data-driven policies.

“Studies have shown that investigations, where there is no suspect, are solved more quickly and at lower costs when there are forensic results,” Garvey said. “The actionable intelligence generated from forensic examinations allows the investigator to rule out or identify persons of interest, link criminal activity, and close more cases. In its totality, these efforts when sustained can result in the prevention of criminal activity from repeat offenders by identifying their actions and patterns early in a criminal’s career.”

As Philadelphia’s homicide rate rose to its deadliest total since 1990 in 2021, the clearance rate of those crimes remained substantially low. Better forensics capabilities should result in more arrests and prosecutions of these fatal incidents.

According to a news release from the District Attorney’s Office in December, “since 2015, about 4 in 5 shootings in Philadelphia have not led to an arrest.”

The Philadelphia Police Department will be implementing these additions throughout 2022, Garvey said. In addition, new DNA capabilities will be rolled out in February, focusing on homicide investigations associated with gun violence.

“Through the use of sensitive DNA instruments and probabilistic genotyping, a new computer-assisted interpretational system, forensic scientists can analyze and interpret low-level DNA and complex DNA mixtures to determine whether an individual is potentially included or excluded from the DNA evidence,” Garvey said. “This enhanced DNA capability, combined with the current ability of the OFS to determine when a firearm has been used in multiple shootings, will produce timely and actionable intelligence to help the department with violent crime investigations.”

Brian Saunders is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.

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