LAPD report says shoddy fingerprint work led to wrong accusations

Los Angeles Police Commission president Anthony Pacheco has asked for a review of fingerprinting policies at the LAPD. That follows the release of a report that found shoddy work by specialists in the department's Latent Print Unit. KPCC's Frank Stoltze says the report raises concerns that misread fingerprints may have sent an unknown number of innocent people to jail as a result of misread fingerprints.

Frank Stoltze: An internal LAPD audit obtained by the Los Angeles Times found fingerprint analysts wrongly identified people in two cases. Someone caught the mistakes only after the suspects were arrested and about to go to trial. Jack Weiss chairs the City Council's Public Safety Committee.

Jack Weiss: How much broader was this? It's hard to believe that it only implicates two cases.

Stoltze: Weiss said the LAPD may need to examine a range of cases involving fingerprints to determine the extent of the problem. The audit found a poorly run LAPD Latent Print Unit where technicians misplaced evidence or left it lying around. In an interview with KPCC's "Patt Morrison," Times reporter Richard Winton said auditors also found that supervisors failed to properly review analysts' work.

Richard Winton: They speculated that possibly it becomes hard for those people to maybe challenge sometimes the initial review when they work right with that person. In other words, these aren't blind reviews.
Patt Morrison: So it may be the person sitting right next to you – the person that you borrow lunch money from – and you don't feel like saying, I think you're wrong?
Winton: Yeah.

Stoltze: LAPD officials refused to speak with KPCC about the audit. The department reportedly has fired one analyst, suspended three others, and replaced two supervisors in its Latent Print Unit.

The unit employs almost 80 forensic print specialists. Los Angeles County's chief Public Defender Michael Judge said the audit raises concerns that innocent people went to prison because analysts wrongly identified fingerprints.

Michael Judge: The problem is that fingerprint evidence is considered so powerful not only by jurors but by people who are accused by crimes that, in the face of an alleged fingerprint match, there are people who will plead guilty, even though they are innocent, for a reduced sentence.

Stoltze: Judge said his office would review cases handled by any of the LAPD personnel who were disciplined – and would determine whether fingerprints played an important role in those cases. Judge expressed anger that the LAPD never told him about the problem.

Judge: They were aware of this more than a year ago – perhaps even two years ago. Had they disclosed it much earlier, then we could have reviewed the cases while they were still in the system.

Stoltze: Joseph Peterson directs the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics at Cal State L.A.

Joseph Peterson: It does surprise me but I have to say that over the last several years, there've been other incidents like this where there have been mistakes. Our concern is that there are proper procedures in place to catch those mistakes and then to remedy the problems that are found.

Stoltze: The Times quoted LAPD officials as saying they've tightened oversight of the fingerprinting unit, but the department reportedly has declined to hire outside auditors to conduct a full review because it doesn't have the money. Then again, said City Councilman Weiss, Chief Bratton never asked for that money.

Weiss: As far as I know, there has never been a request to the council from the LAPD to pay for anything related to this.

Stoltze: Weiss said he learned of the problems only after the news media reported them. He promised to hold hearings on the issue during his Public Safety Committee meeting next month.