City police refuse to release findings of independent crime lab inspection

January 09, 2009|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Baltimore police have refused to release a report from an outside group detailing problems in the city's crime lab, arguing that revealing the findings would be "contrary to the public interest," according to a letter from the Police Department's chief attorney, Mark H. Grimes.

The Baltimore Sun received the denial yesterday in response to a request for the report under the state's Public Information Act.

The decision comes the same week that the department's public affairs office reversed a long-standing policy of releasing the names of officers who shoot or kill people, prompting criticism from some state and city leaders who feared that less disclosure would hurt public trust in the department.

In the letter denying the release of the lab inspection results, Grimes cited a portion of state law dealing with the discretionary release of "investigatory records" that could, for instance, invade someone's privacy or put people's lives at risk.

Grimes declined to comment.

Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III requested the review, conducted by the industry's accreditation board, after The Sun reported last year on problems in the lab's DNA section.

DNA from employees at the lab had not been entered in a database, giving them no way of knowing whether their genetic material had contaminated crime scene evidence. Such contamination has occurred in 18 cases, according to the department.

"To say this report would compromise an ongoing criminal investigation, that's ridiculous," said Michele Nethercott, director of the Innocence Project in Maryland, which works to exonerate wrongly convicted people. "Since the lab operates on public funds, the public should be entitled to some accountability about how it operates."

The Police Department has already released the cover letter of the report from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board. The board's team found "non-compliance" with 15 "essential" criteria that had to be remedied within six months. The cover letter, however, does not explain what those faults were.

In 2007, the General Assembly passed a law designed to enhance regulation of the state's crime labs and included a provision dealing with whether audit reports should be made public.

"Forensic laboratory deficiency statements and plans of correction are public documents," according to the law. "A forensic laboratory shall make discrepancy logs, contamination records, and test results available to the public within 30 days of a written request."

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