Forensic DNA Unit Efficiency Improvement

NIJ stopped funding awards under this program in fiscal year 2011.

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Description and Goals

Enhanced DNA laboratory capacity is critical to the ability of crime laboratories to meet the increased demand for DNA testing. Law enforcement officers are realizing the importance of collecting, preserving and submitting forensic evidence from both violent and nonviolent crime scenes. This is resulting in sharp increases in submissions of DNA evidence to the nation's public crime laboratories.

Under this program, NIJ funded novel and innovative ways to improve the efficiency and capacity of public forensic DNA laboratories by developing and adopting an improved laboratory process. Laboratories could use funds to purchase Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS), additional equipment or robotics, or an expert system. Or they could hire additional personnel or contractors to implement their process. NIJ's objective is to publish successful and carefully evaluated novel efficiency improvement methodologies. These are intended to serve as models to be considered by other forensic science laboratories.

In 2010, NIJ modified the program to fund implementation of novel technologies resulting from ongoing research and development projects to improve capacity or efficiency of forensic DNA laboratories. FY 2010's program was designed to fund incorporation of novel technologies, through validation studies, into state and local government forensic laboratories performing DNA analysis.

Grant Program Highlights

Some DNA Unit Efficiency projects produced gains in efficiency, capacity and overall process that could be useful to other laboratories experiencing similar problems. Below are some projects from this program that yielded noteworthy results.

Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office (2009)
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office (PBSO) was seeing an increase in casework submissions and could not decrease its turnaround time. This produced a growing backlog. In January 2009, the Palm Beach County Law Enforcement Planning Council, composed of all county chiefs of police, assembled a DNA/Law Enforcement Working Group. Its task was to investigate options for decreasing the DNA backlog and turnaround times. Among the Working Group's findings:

  • The screening of crime scene evidence for biological material is a fundamental factor in the relentless increase of caseload backlogs.
  • Prescreening evidentiary samples submitted to the laboratory before submission to the Forensic Biology Unit for DNA analysis would reduce backlog and turnaround time.

The NIJ Efficiency Improvement Program grant monies allowed the Biological Processing Laboratory (BPL) to open at the Boca Raton Police Department in April 2012. Evidence from the three largest county southernmost law enforcement agencies is now screened at the BPL before DNA evidence is submitted to the PBSO.

The final report for this project is forthcoming.

University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, Department of Forensic and Investigative Genetics (2009)
The University of North Texas Health Science Center undertook a project to develop an expert system for automated forensic mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) data analysis.

The objectives of the project were:

  • To create an expert system process that will review and parse raw sequence data.
  • To improve a sequence analysis program to better automate the routine and repetitive tasks in interpretation of mtDNA sequence analysis. This will improve laboratory efficiency and the speed of data analysis.

The expert system software programs were developed and updated to fully automate the analysis of high-quality raw and annotated mtDNA sequence data. When the expert system is unable to complete the automated analysis of challenged data, the software directs the analyst to the specific area for review and serves as a decision-support tool. This aids the analyst in resolving the data and delivering a result or directs the analyst to reanalyze. The three software programs linked contiguously evaluated mtDNA sequence data faster and with less error and generated a haplotype report.

Read the final report, Development of an Expert System for Automated Forensic Mitochondrial DNA Data Analysis (PDF, 130 pages).

Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory (2008)
In the mid-2000s, the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory (LSPCL) found that the increased rate of DNA testing requests was outpacing its ability to turn cases around, making it impossible to eliminate the backlog. Using NIJ's Forensic DNA Efficiency Improvement Award, LSPCL devised a multifaceted approach to enhance efficiency. The new process included Lean Six Sigma projects, equipment upgrades, validation of robotics and moving to a paperless environment. As a result, productivity increased 280 percent and the backlog decreased by 85 percent. DNA requests completed each month increased by 68 percent since 2008. Furthermore, LSPCL changed its culture, primarily through the Lean Six Sigma projects. These changes created a stable platform from which to make the equipment, personnel and available resources more efficient.

Read the final report, Increasing Efficiency of Forensic DNA Casework Using Lean Six Sigma Tools (PDF, 125 pages).

University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, Department of Forensic and Investigative Genetics (2008)
The Center's Field Testing Division identified steps in the analysis of mtDNA for reference samples that could:

  • Reduce labor in the laboratory and in data review.
  • Reduce reagent costs.
  • Reduce overall analytical time.

The resulting new laboratory process offered more efficient amplification, sequencing and analysis of mtDNA. It greatly enhanced throughput capabilities, decreased unit costs, and decreased the amount of time needed for laboratory processing and data review by analysts. Enhanced LIMS capabilities included autofill worksheets and reagent calculations. These increased throughput and decreased human error. Each step or procedure added, modified or further optimized for high-throughput processing has been validated.

Read the final report, Development of an Integrated Workflow from Laboratory Processing to Report Generation for mtDNA Haplotype Analysis (PDF, 145 pages). ​

Date Modified: January 7, 2013