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Faulty fingerprinting at LA County Sheriff’s Department putting agency at risk, supervisors allege

Two senior employees of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department allege they have been retaliated against after reporting deficiencies in the department’s fingerprinting process that they claim are putting the agency at risk.

In damage claims filed with the county on Feb. 9, Lt. Anitria “Michelle” Tomlin, an 18-year veteran of the department, and Guninder Singh, a 27-year department employee who serves as director of its records and identification bureau, allege they have been subjected to undue stress, disparate treatment and a sham internal affairs investigation after reporting the deficiencies.

In her claim, which typically is a precursor to a lawsuit, Tomlin alleges that the reported failures have resulted in the “false and misleading testimony of fingerprint identification technicians in court who are testifying as to the integrity of the fingerprint identification process against defendants.”

The failures center on the lack of fingerprint supervisors in the records and identification bureau. Supervisors ensure quality control and the accuracy of all fingerprints processed by technicians, the claim states.

Linda Scott, the attorney representing Tomlin and Singh, said industry standard calls for at least five supervisors working in the bureau over a 24-hour period, but the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has only three, and sometimes there have been entire weekends with no supervisor on duty.

The problem dates back to September 2021, when Singh first addressed the staffing shortages and the risk it posed in a memo to Brian Yanagi, chief of the department’s technology and support division. She noted retirements and employees out on medical leave as the main culprits behind the reduced staffing levels.

“As it stands, the current staffing model is problematic because there are numerous days where minimum staffing is the standard of the day,” Singh said in her memo, in which she noted that the reduced staffing “essentially precludes the ability to completely perform fingerprint verifications and identification.”

A hiring freeze in 2021 precluded the filling of two vacancies in the bureau, further adding to the problem, according to Singh’s memo. “We anticipate no immediate relief in the way of hiring,” she said.

A month after Singh sent her memo, Yanagi still ordered that the records and identification bureau continue operating with only one to two fingerprint technicians, with or without a supervisor on duty, Tomlin and Singh allege.

Fingerprint technicians often are subpoenaed to testify at criminal trials as to the integrity of the department’s fingerprinting process, and the deficiencies at the department could potentially jeopardize thousands of criminal cases winding their way through the pretrial process, Scott said.

“I think this is far-reaching,” Scott said in a telephone interview.

The sheriff’s identification and records bureau processes about 1,000 sets of fingerprints a week, depending on the number of people arrested, and serves all of Los Angeles County, Scott said.

Scott said the number of criminal cases affected could potentially be in the thousands and raise problems in the courtroom.

“Testimony of process would have to be reviewed and is asked by each prosecutor to establish the credibility of the fingerprints,” Scott said. “The lack of supervision since 2021 is significant.”

Since Tomlin and Singh complained of the problem, they have been subjected to an internal affairs investigation stemming from a counseling session in October 2022 that Tomlin and Singh had with a subordinate. Tomlin was accused of bullying and harassment, Scott said.

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The investigation remains ongoing, but is tarnishing Tomlin’s and Singh’s careers and hindering their chances of promotion, according to the claims. Prior to the recent investigation, both have had otherwise unblemished careers at the department, Scott said.

As a result, Singh said she suffers from headaches, neck aches, and grinding teeth, so bad that she broke a crown and has had to undergo two root canals. She also said she suffers from insomnia, digestive problems and weight loss due to the stress, according to her claim.

The claims name Yanagi and Chris Kovac, commander of the technology and support division, as employees “involved in injury or damage.”

In response, the Sheriff’s Department issued the following statement: “Although we are unable to comment on pending litigation, the Department takes this allegation seriously. We are conducting a thorough and internal review of our procedures to ensure we are complying and exceeding with professional and legal standards.”

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