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Due to problems with the city’s newly reconfigured procurement system, the Baltimore Police Department has been unable to secure a key chemical component necessary for DNA tests, which left them scrambling to find it elsewhere.
The department has borrowed as much as a six-month supply of analytical reagent, the compound used to cause a chemical reaction in DNA testing, from other labs in the state. Two sources, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak about the matter, told The Baltimore Banner that the shortfall of reagent would not have been solved without the assistance of other agencies. That means DNA testing used in forensic evidence analysis wouldn’t have been available, delaying crime investigations when the police department already struggles with understaffing and slowdowns in its crime laboratory.
Baltimore City Councilman Mark Conway, the District 4 representative who chairs the city’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee, called the shortfall of reagent “concerning.”
“I’m glad we were able to figure out a stopgap in the meantime, but it’s really important that we fix the system so that we don’t have this happen again,” said Conway, who said he didn’t know which agencies had filled the police departments’ gap. “Whatever the issues that led to this problem, we need to learn from.”
A Baltimore police spokeswoman said payments to some vendors have been delayed since early August, when the city transitioned to a new digital portal system called Workday.
“Addressing payment issues is a key priority and all agencies … are working with the Department of Finance to ensure vendors are paid,” spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said, also citing a learning curve as a result of the transition to the new platform. She added that the police and local crime labs “routinely” share items as they navigate supply chain and procurement delays.
The situation is a window into larger breakdowns with the city procurement and disbursement processes. And criminal justice and law enforcement experts said the reagent shortfall could have jeopardized the crime lab’s accreditation, which hinges on adherence to certain standards. Much of the justice system depends on DNA testing, they said.
“That’s really serious because that crime lab — I’m presuming it has a high and busy caseload — all of that is called into question, because they’re not permitted to run a procedure unless every part of it is validated,” said Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor emeritus at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It’s not a minor thing, especially with DNA analysis; any lab that does DNA work, they’ve got to do it right, dot the I’s and cross the T’s.”
Problems with city spending and purchasing have escalated in recent years, causing impediments in construction projects, rent relief programs and nonprofit partners’ services. Baltimore City administrator Christopher J. Shorter has aimed to reform and modernize city buying and spending projects with Workday, a unified system that includes finance, budget, procurement and human resources functions. But people who do business with the city say the payments are backed up so long it complicates their work, slows down progress and sours their attitudes.
The procurement division, the entity housed within the Department of Finance that purchases goods and services for most city agencies, contracts for about $500 million worth of goods and services a year, according to budget documents. The number of purchase orders has fluctuated in recent years, according to budget documents, peaking in 2018 at 27,290 and falling to a low of 18,515 in fiscal year 2021. The fiscal year 2023 goal stands at 20,000.
The Board of Estimates, the city’s five-person spending board, approved a procurement contract for reagent with Wisconsin-based Promega Corporation in June for $588,201. The contract runs through 2025.
The reagents are used in the police department’s forensic science and evidence management division, and are the only available reagents validated for use in case work, according to the spending board agenda. Kobilinsky said they are used in a variety of cases that might go to court, which could include criminal cases, such as homicides, or civil cases, such as paternity or maternity tests. “The vendor is the sole manufacturer and distributor of the reagents with this formulation,” the spending board agenda says.
Police have for years met headwinds with their DNA processing abilities. Last year, officials confirmed that the crime laboratory had a backlog of 11,000 fingerprints collected from crime scenes that haven’t been analyzed and said it would take another year before the lab can process evidence from violent crimes in “real time.”
A lab supervisor also told The Baltimore Sun last year that much of the lab’s DNA evidence sat untested, leaving many nonviolent cases, such as carjackings and burglaries, unsolved. Violent crimes are processed first, the laboratory workers said.
David Jaros, professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and faculty director at its Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said such “forced hierarchies” in casework can leave many victims and survivors without answers for years as their DNA samples collect dust.
“Every time you pull resources into something, you pull it away from something else,” said Jaros, referencing the federal class-action lawsuit against Baltimore County officials for allegedly destroying hundreds of rape kits and systematically denying women equal protection and justice. “If there are limited resources, the poorest communities tend to suffer the most.”
Officials from the mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said at a Wednesday news conference that city officials are hopeful voters will approve an upcoming ballot question in the general election that would move the accounts payable division part of the finance department, to the comptroller’s office.
“I know it sounds crazy for a mayor to say that in order for the city to be better, the mayor has to give up some power to have more balance in city government. And this is what this is about,” he said. “This is something that we agree can go to the comptroller’s office for the betterment of the city, the future of the city and the present of the city.”
Baltimore Banner reporter Emily Sullivan contributed to this article.