Allegations of improper analysis of evidence have been made against the Austin Police Department crime laboratory by Debra Stephens, a former forensic scientist and employee of APD. The Texas Department of Public Safety is currently investigating these allegations.

In 2005, the Texas Legislature approved a law requiring crime laboratories analyzing evidence for court to be inspected for accreditation. In a Dec. 27 letter to Travis County district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, Stephens wrote that the inspection and accreditation first conducted on the APD lab were invalid due to unqualified lab employees and mishandling of evidence. The letter was not released to the media until January.

Buddy Meyer, Travis County assistant district attorney, said representatives of the Texas Department of Public Safety are still investigating the allegations and have not yet reported a final conclusion to the DA’s office. He also said Lehmberg has released reports detailing the complaint to defense attorneys in Austin, whose cases might be affected by the allegations.
“From [2005] forward, the accredited laboratory was managed by non-scientists and unqualified personnel,” Stephens wrote.

She attached, along with her letter to Lehmberg, evidence in the form of three exhibits which she claimed indicated the crime lab had rushed to report results before sufficient analysis was conducted.

“I would estimate that there are hundreds of other cases that were analyzed without regard to laboratory protocols in ‘rush’ case requests that I was unable to identify,” Stephens wrote. “Part of my decision in releasing these documents to your office came from my belief that this information could be uncovered by the defense community and brought into the courtroom to discredit these individuals and the whole Austin Police Department crime laboratory.”

Pat Johnson, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, wrote in a letter to the district attorney’s office that there could have been insufficient testing before the APD crime laboratory issued a preliminary report.

“From my review of these cases, appropriate chemical analysis was preformed prior to issuance of the final laboratory report,” Johnson wrote. “The documents provided on two of the cases, however, do not show any testing before the ‘Preliminary Report’ was emailed. I suspect there may be more records ... and those should be reviewed before deciding whether this is a problem.”

Johnson also wrote that he recommends the APD crime laboratory not refer to “preliminary reports” as reports, but as “preliminary findings” to help distinguish them from authentic lab reports.

Bill Gibbens, spokesman for the Forensics Science Division of the Austin Police Department, said Stephens allegations were unrelated to a previous complaint made by another APD employee, Cecily Hamilton, about faulty work in the crime lab in 2010.

“Ms. Hamilton’s complaint had to do with a DNA related issue and Ms. Stephen’s allegations are a chemistry related issue,” Gibbens said.

Printed on Thursday, January 26, 2011 as: APD Lab faces allegations of poor analysis

Sketches sho a man involved in the July 8 crimes (Fig. 1), a man involved in the Christmas Day acts of indecent exposure (Fig. 2) and a man involved in a string of New Year's Day crimes (Composite sketches courtesy of Austin Police Department).

Representatives of the Austin Police Department said the man responsible for the murder of Esmeralda Barrera on New Year’s Day is still at large, despite an intensive police investigation and more than 250 crime tips from the community.

Austin residents provided tips after police released information about the homicide with the description of two other attacks that occurred Jan. 1 in the North Campus area. One attack occurred before Barrera’s murder and one occurred after, but APD spokeswoman Veneza Aguinaga said the police department cannot confirm a definite connection between the three attacks, although they are not ruling anything out.

Aguinaga also said APD released information on Jan. 4 to the public about an indecent exposure case that might be related to Barrera’s murder. According to the police report, the incident occurred on Christmas Day in the 300 block of East 31st Street — the same location cited in the police report for the third New Year’s Day attack.

She said police could not confirm that the woman who reported the indecent exposure case on Christmas Day was the same woman who reported an aggravated sexual assault on New Year’s Day, and APD is investigating both events and their relationship.

Despite claims that the man responsible for Barrera’s death was connected to three attacks that occurred in South Austin on July 8, Aguinaga said could neither confirm nor deny any connection.

“At this time we have no indication that [all or any of] these cases are related,” Aguinaga said. “If we had a suspect, we might be able to make statements about the relationships between various cases.”

Aguinaga said citizens have been distributing alongside the drawing connected with the New Year’s Day attacks composites from the July 8 assaults and from the Christmas Day incident. She said she could not officially endorse any other drawings, depictions or photos made by private citizens.

“The police department has released three photos, and we stand by those three photos,” she said.

Anna Sabana, spokeswoman for APD, said the Heritage Neighborhood Association organized an event with members of the APD’s executive team to discuss community safety and the New Year’s Day assaults. The meeting was held Jan. 9 at First English Lutheran Church.

“They invited us there due to some concerns about safety,” Sabana said. “In addition to answering questions from the audience we released some general safety tips.”

Sabana said Commander Julie O’Brien and Police Chief Art Acevedo attended the event and responded to the audience’s questions.

Paula Brown, president of the Heritage Neighborhood Association, said the meeting was presented as a part of the community’s healing process.

“It turned into a huge meeting with over 150 people, including residents and friends of [Barrera],” Brown said.

O’Brien urged residents to secure their doors with dead bolts, make an effort to have good lighting around their property and to use a buddy system when walking in the neighborhood, Brown said.

Police advise caution after a murder and two assaults occurred in the North Campus area early Sunday morning. APD officials are in the process of investigating all three incidents.

The Austin Police Department investigated a 9-1-1 call received at 2:46 AM on New Year’s Day. The call described an injured woman at her home in the 3100 block of King Street. The woman, later identified as Esmeralda Barrera, was pronounced dead after the arrival of the police.

APD does not have a suspect for the murder in custody, but the two assaults in the area that morning which Department members believe might be related to Barrera’s murder, according to a press release issued by the police department.

The first woman, attacked while walking on King Street, was able to provide a description of her attacker which UTPD officials have released online “in hopes of alerting the public and also receiving information from the public.” The suspect was described as a 30 to 40 year old black male with large dark brown eyes. He was described as approximately six feet tall, with a muscular build and was last seen wearing blue jeans and a grey jacket over a dark colored t-shirt.

About half an hour before the murder, a woman walking on the 3100 block of King Street in the neighborhood behind Boomerang's Pies on Guadalupe Street was assaulted. After the murder, a third woman was assaulted in her home in the 300 block of East 31st Street between Speedway and Duval Street.

APD would not release the police report for any of the incidents, give the names of the other two victims, or describe in any more detail the nature of the assaults, as the investigation is still ongoing.

“Residents should always be aware of their surroundings,” Veneza Aguinaga, spokesperson for APD said. “Keep all doors and windows locked and report any suspicious persons, noises, activities by calling 911.”

The UT Police Department also sent out an email to students describing the incidents and releasing information about the suspect’s appearance Monday night.

“The Austin Police Department is the Agency investigating the case so [additional] information [about the incidents] should come through APD,” Aguinaga said. “UTPD is doing an excellent job of keeping students informed about the case from information we release.”

APD would not release the police report for any of the incidents, give the names of the other two victims, or describe in any more detail the nature of the assaults, as the investigation is still ongoing.

The Austin Police Department urged anyone with information about Barrera’s activities earlier that night or about the suspect in her murder to contact the Homicide Tip Line at 477-3588 or Crimestoppers at 472-TIPS.

City council members debated potential cuts to the Austin Police Department on Monday during the first reading and review of the 2012 city budget.

Council members discussed and proposed amendments to individual line items on the budget throughout the day, and a second reading will take place Tuesday at City Hall. The original budget lifted $3 million from the police force by delaying cadet class schedules and reducing overtime for sworn personnel. Council members voted to conduct a study of police force utilization after much debate about additional cutbacks to APD proposed by council member Bill Spelman. While the original budget made room to hire 47 new police force members, Spelman proposed the number be decreased to 31.

“Essentially [the study] is going to look at what are our community’s goals in terms of public safety, how we are currently using our officers to meet those goals and what changes we should take to more effectively use the resources we have,” said Barksdale English, policy aide for Spelman.

The city currently maintains a ratio of two police officers per 1,000 Austin residents. English said the results of the study could establish the current ratio as sufficient or indicate a need for more or less police force members. City officials do not yet have a time line for when the study will take place, he said.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo debated the idea of cutting police officers during the budget reading, stating a decrease in officers would produce a negative outcome.

Austin Police Association president Wayne Vincent agreed.

Vincent said he feels APD currently operates at minimum capacity, and he believes making further reductions based on a “theoretical study” would be a great mistake.

“The more visible the police are, the less crime there is,” Vincent said. “It’s been proven time and again.”

Vincent said possible cuts to APD could also place strain on the UT Police Department.

UT Police Chief Robert Dahlstrom said both police departments work together as necessary, but cuts to APD police numbers may not directly affect the UT campus and surrounding areas.

“If they were cutting back on those officers assigned to this area then it could affect us,” Dahlstrom said. “It will certainly affect the city as a whole though. When you cut back on officers, some of that crime will have to be prioritized.”

Dahlstrom said lower crime activities, such as graffiti or minor thefts, may not be followed up on if police officers are taking care of higher priorities. Dahlstrom said he hopes, however, that more crime would not be encouraged because of the lack of attention to these areas or less visible police patrol.

Printed on September 13, 2011 as: City council discusses cuts to police forces, may see rise in crime

Officers, sergeants, deputies and family members, decked in their Halloween best, performed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in the downtown Austin Police Department garage Wednesday to raise money for breast cancer research.

The crowd, composed mostly of family members, laughed and clapped to the familiar tune as some police force members, supporting the APD fundrasing group SCARE for a CURE, emerged from a pink police car reading “Susan G. Komen for the Cure.”

SCARE’s president and co-founder, APD Detective Jarrett Crippen, said APD has performed “Thriller” since 2007 when they first teamed with the Breast Cancer Resource Centers of Texas.

“We wanted to find a way members of the force could get involved with the effort to raise awareness,” he said. “When they aren’t at work, they’re with their families so there’s not a lot of time to contribute, but this way they can fundraise and enjoy their families.”

SCARE also hosts a haunted house from Oct. 14 until Halloween night. Crippen said all of the proceeds go to breast cancer research and awareness.

“Every year that we have hosted our events, the amount of money we raise has doubled,” he said.

Last year, SCARE raised $15,000 for the Breast Cancer Resource Centers and its goal this year is to raise between $20,000 and $25,000.

Tammy Santos and her two daughters, ages 12 and 5, danced in support of her husband, a crime analyst with APD. Santos said she and the girls have practiced since late September and were happy to perform.

“Breast Cancer [research] is a great thing to support, and it seemed fun, so I was happy to do it,” Santos said. “I am so proud of my girls because they worked hard and we had a good time together.”

Alex Schafer, a 17-year-old high school student with a father and stepmother on the force, starred as Michael Jackson, clad in full “Thriller” garb. Schafer said he simply came where he was needed and was glad to help.

“I knew they did ‘Thriller,’ but I hadn’t really thought of helping until they asked,” he said. “They needed someone to be Michael, and I loved the idea of hanging out with these people because most of them are like family.”

Schafer said they had weeks of practice but he didn’t have a lot of trouble because he is an experienced dancer.

“I performed ‘Thriller’ at my high school in theater, and I was Michael Jackson there, too, so I had a small advantage,” he said.

SCARE for a CURE continues their fundraising effort on Oct. 23, with “Thrillerfest 2010,” where participants can learn the full “Thriller” dance and get a chance to perform. The rest of the month’s events can be found at scareforacure.org.