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RCMP’s forensic firearm testing backlog adding delays to justice system

16-12-2018

The RCMP’s forensics labs are taking nearly four times longer to analyze firearms than they did just four years ago, adding delays to a criminal justice system under pressure to speed up after a recent Supreme Court decision.

 

The turnaround time for routine firearms analyses by the National Forensic Laboratory Services (NFLS) is 206 days, according to figures provided by the RCMP covering April 1 to Sept. 30. That compares with a 56-day average recorded during the 2013-14 fiscal year.

 

While the tally is down marginally from last year’s mark of 238 days, it is a significant bump from the average recorded during the first quarter of this year – 158 – suggesting the labs have been bogged down over the course of a violent summer across much of the country.

 

NFLS technicians perform all the functions popularized by the hit TV series CSI, but with none of the glamour – providing court-ready forensic analysis of toxicology, biology, firearms and trace evidence for police services across the country.

 

“They do great work,” said Rick Woodburn, a Nova Scotia-based crown attorney and president of the Canadian Association of Crown Counsel. "There’s never been an issue with the quality of their work or commitment to their jobs. There’s just not enough of them.”

Mr. Woodburn is at the forefront of calls to reduce wait times at the RCMP crime labs. He says since a Supreme Court ruling in 2016 put time limits on criminal court cases, judges, Crowns, defence attorneys and others have been working double-time to ensure people get speedy trials. “The one thing slowing us down is the lab,” he said. “Forensic testing will take time, that’s understandable. But the numbers we’re seeing are terribly lengthy. It’s dramatically affecting our justice system.”

 

In a written response, RCMP spokeswoman Sergeant Marie Damian said the Mounties have recently received federal funding for two new positions with the NFLS’s firearms and toolmark program to address backlogs.

 

“The increased capacity is expected to improve turnaround times of services associated with the integrated ballistics identification system and to ensure that guns-and-gang related submissions are prioritized,” Sgt. Damian said.

 

The RCMP labs have long been under scrutiny. An auditor-general’s report released in 2007 found the labs rarely met their internal turnaround targets of 30 days for routine requests, and urged the Mounties to deliver results in a more timely manner.

 

The RCMP agreed, vowing to reduce response times, which had by then hit 86 days for firearms requests.

 

But five years after that report, labs in Regina, Winnipeg and Halifax were closed during a round of cost-cutting. The Mounties now have just three labs – based in Ottawa, Edmonton and Vancouver – to provide forensic services for every police force outside of Ontario and Quebec, which maintain their own labs.

 

In a 2012 statement, the RCMP said the closings would save $3.5-million a year and “improve efficiency, eliminate redundancy and reduce infrastructure costs, while maintaining services.”

 

Turnaround times at the labs quickly ballooned. Between 2013-14 and 2015-16 fiscal years, the average wait time went from 56 days for routine cases and 10 days for priority cases to 171 days for routine cases and 37 days for priority cases.

 

The breakdown for last year was an average of 238 days for routine requests and 26 days for priority cases.

 

The Ontario Centre for Forensic Sciences, by comparison, posted an average turnaround time last year of 41 days for its physical sciences section, a department that works on firearms and documentary exhibits.

 

“The lab has always been struggling,” Mr. Woodburn said. “They keep putting small Band-Aids over a hemorrhaging lab system. Someone has to take a hard look at this and consider the possibility of reopening and restaffing those old labs.”

 

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-rcmps-forensic-firearm-testing-backlog-adding-delays-to-justice/