After three Menlo Park police officers shot and killed a parolee at large last November, a lot needed to happen, including the collection of blood samples from the officers. But no technician from the county's contracted phlebotomy service ever showed up.
It's not the first time Specimen Specialists of America Inc., which was awarded a $290,000 contract with San Mateo County in August 2012 to collect evidentiary blood samples, failed to follow through.
If the phlebotomy technicians don't show up -- or arrive late, with someone's metabolism continuing to process whatever drugs may be present -- evidence that may bolster the case for either innocence or guilt is lost.
In the case of the Menlo Park shooting, the District Attorney's Office found that the police officers were justified in shooting in self-defense. Blood samples could have supported that conclusion by objectively establishing, for example, that none was under the influence of any substance that interfered with their judgment at the time.
The county contract states that lab technicians are to respond within 40 minutes of a service call to take blood from: those arrested or incarcerated, those involved in a motor vehicle collision who agree to have blood drawn, and public safety personnel involved in critical incidents, such as officer-involved shootings and vehicle accidents.
The phlebotomy service is called out 1,764 times a year on average, according to the county. From mid-2012 through April 2014, the San Mateo County Forensics Laboratory, which has oversight of the contract for phlebotomy services, tracked at least 24 complaints about the service from Peninsula law enforcement agencies.
The complaints included technicians not showing up, arriving without the necessary kits, and failing to appear in court to testify. Explanations given by the contractor ranged from car breakdowns to scheduling conflicts; in other cases, technicians were fired for ignoring calls.
The county forensics lab also noted 76 late responses -- i.e., when the technician exceeded the 40-minute response time set by the contract.
The exact number of complaints to date is unknown. When complaints came in "somewhat regularly" in 2012 and 2013, documentation was kept for quality control and to make sure service improved, according to the forensics laboratory director, Alex Karagianes. The laboratory stopped keeping a "complaint file" in early 2014 because the complaints "were all but non-existent" by that time, he said.
"Now every three to four months, I'll get something from a commander or captain saying, it took them 90 minutes to get here," he said.
The laboratory had no documentation related to complaints made about the response to the November 2014 shooting in Menlo Park.
Mr. Karagianes noted that the service has come a long way, although there's still work to be done -- to improve response times, for one, perhaps by making a technician available in the field during peak call hours.
"We're not complacent as a department," he said. "I'm working with the company, and every time I get a complaint, I engage them."
Specimen Specialists did not respond to interview requests from the Almanac.
Menlo Park case
Mr. Karagianes went to the scene of the Nov. 11 shooting in Menlo Park, as did District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. According to the lab director, no one told them there was a problem getting a phlebotomy technician.
Menlo Park Police Cmdr. Dave Bertini, who was out of town at the time of the shooting but had oversight of the police department's part in the investigation after returning to work, said no one knew whom to complain to. After learning about the problem, he called the forensics lab to find out who was responsible for the contract.
Jurisdiction over the phlebotomy contact had bounced around between county divisions before settling at the forensics lab, adding to the confusion. Had someone at the scene of the shooting reported the problem to him, Mr. Karagianes said, "there were other options we could have put in place."
Urine testing would have been one option. Another would have been asking the staff at the Keller Center, a facility at the county hospital that handles emergency care and evidence collection in abuse and sexual assault cases, to take the blood samples.
A blood draw is the common procedure, according to Cmdr. Bertini. "In the end, I think the simple answer to this specific incident is (that) no one considered a urine test as an alternative after the lab folks failed to show." Similarly, turning to the Keller Center was not on anyone's radar since the police department doesn't use that facility for blood draws. Taking an officer to another location to give a sample is also not common practice, he said.
Mr. Karagianes said he learned of the problems a day or two later via email, and the issue was resolved -- everyone now knows he's the one to complain to.
"I think sometimes people don't like making phone calls to complain," he said. "I like when they call. Otherwise, it festers. If I don't know about it, I can't fix it."
Contract up in June
The county contract with Specimen Specialists expires on June 30. Mr. Karagianes said he has prepared a request for bid proposals.
"There's not a lot of people doing this work," he said. "Three years ago, we had two bidders, this company and one other. The downside to opening it up is always, what happens if no one applies? Now what do I do? I guess I'd be taking classes on the weekend to learn how to do (blood draws.)"
Should a provider not be chosen by June 30, the current contract allows a temporary extension for up to $25,000 in services.
Why not use the county's healthcare workers? The staff had an ethical conflict about collecting samples that could be used to prosecute a client rather than for medical treatment, according to Mr. Karagianes.
Previous providers ran over budget by $100,000 a year, and also had personnel issues -- at least one suspect avoided prosecution because the technician who took the sample was facing criminal charges. Two employees with criminal backgrounds transferred over to Specimen Specialists, Mr. Karagianes said, but were both fired. He said he was not aware of any cases not being charged by the district attorney due to problems with Specimen Specialists.
The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors does not have to approve soliciting bids, although it does have to approve the final contract. Asked for comment on the current phlebotomy service, the supervisors either failed to respond or referred inquiries to the Sheriff's Office, which in turn passed the requests to the forensics lab.