Troubled DNA crime lab may soon be run by DPS

City would pay state to op­er­ate the fa­cil­ity for the time be­ing.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Tony Plo­het­ski tplo­het­ski@states­man.com

City of­fi­cials plan to re­open the troubled Austin po­lice DNA lab un­der an agree­ment in which the state will over­see the day-to-day op­er­a­tion of the now-shut­tered fa­cil­ity, the Amer­i­can-States­man and KVUE-TV learned Wed­nes­day.

Un­der a pro­posed con­tract, the city of Austin will pay the Texas Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety $800,000 a year to man­age all as­pects of the lab, in­clud­ing pro­ce­dures for an­a­lyz­ing foren­sic ev­i­dence and the over­sight of em­ploy­ees hired by the DPS to work there.

The newly named Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety Cap­i­tal Area Re­gional Lab will fo­cus ex­clu­sively on Austin po­lice cases, As­sis­tant Po­lice Chief Troy Gay said.

“Right now, we have a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar lab that is not be­ing used, and this con­tract will al­low the fa­cil­ity, which has re­mained vacant and un­der­uti­lized, to be fully func­tional,” Gay said. Austin po­lice will have “no man­age­ment and over­sight re­spon­si­bil­i­ties,” he said.

The pro­posed deal is un­com­mon for DNA test­ing. Al­though the DPS rou­tinely pro­vides foren­sics test­ing for po­lice de­part­ments when it is asked by lo­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tors, it is rare for it to take over op­er­a­tions of a city’s lab.

The ef­fort to res­ur­rect the lab is a sig­nif­i­cant step for a fa­cil­ity that has faced in­tense state scru-

tiny since last sum­mer, trig­ger­ing ques­tions about the qual­ity of ev­i­dence test­ing and po­ten­tially jeop­ar­diz­ing ma­jor crim­i­nal cases.

Austin po­lice of­fi­cials in June closed the lab af­ter the Texas Foren­sic Sci­ence Com­mis­sion cited a lack of prop­erly trained staff and

said work­ers were us­ing in­cor­rect meth­ods when they ex­am­ined DNA sam- ples — fre­quently key ev­i­dence in vi­o­lent crimes such as homi­cides and sex­ual as­saults.

The is­sues raised con­cerns about how well Austin po­lice had op­er­ated the fa­cil­ity and led to calls by some in the crim­i­nal jus­tice com­mu­nity for the lab to be run by a pri­vate op­er­a­tor.

Gay said the con­tract with the DPS will al­low po­lice to con­tinue an­a­lyz­ing DNA sam­ples as city and county lead- ers de­ter­mine the most suit- able path for­ward — a process he said could take sev­eral months while cases sit untested or wait to be fun­neled to a pri­vate lab.

Austin po­lice have been work­ing with DPS of­fi­cials since the sum­mer, be­gin- ning with an ef­fort that ini­tially fo­cused on ad­di­tional train­ing for Austin po­lice staff to get the lab run­ning again. How­ever, DPS of­fi­cials in De­cem­ber said they had lost faith in most of Austin’s DNA lab em­ploy­ees and agreed to con­tinue train­ing

only a cou­ple of them at the state lab in North Austin.

Gay said un­der the deal, the lab would em­ploy about nine staffers, some of whom

might al­ready work for the DPS. A few Austin po­lice staffers who worked in the lab un­til it closed last year

and have been shifted to other jobs in the depart­ment

might re­turn. Po­lice said the cur­rent pro­posal would al­low Austin

po­lice to ad­dress what has been a sig­nif­i­cant back­log of cases sit­ting on lab shelves await­ing anal­y­sis. As of this week, Gay said the Po­lice Depart­ment has 2,535 cases await­ing DNA test­ing, 1,686 of which are from re­ported sex­ual as­saults.

The depart­ment has al­ready con­tracted — or plans to con­tract — with three pri­vate labs that have agreed to test Austin po­lice DNA ev­i­dence.

Gay said that, with those pri­vate labs work­ing in con- junc­tion with the DPS-oper- ated Austin po­lice fa­cil­ity,

of­fi­cials hope to have test­ing on all cases per­formed by April 2018, “which is very ag­gres­sive.”

The pro­posed agree­ment is sched­uled to go to the Austin City Coun­cil on March 23. Gay spent much of Wed­nes­day brief­ing coun­cil mem- bers about the pro­posed DPS con­tract.

Travis County Dis­trict At­tor­ney Mar­garet Moore sent a let­ter to coun­cil mem­bers urg­ing them to ap­prove the agree­ment.

“Al­though this in­terim so­lu­tion will not elim­i­nate the need for out­sourc­ing to pri­vate labs, it will help to al­le­vi­ate some of the se­ri­ous ca­pac­ity is­sues that are mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to have DNA test­ing of ev­i­dence in pend­ing cases and in­ves­ti­ga­tions com­pleted in a timely man­ner,” Moore wrote.

The coun­cil will also vote on an agree­ment between the city and county for a na­tional ex­pert to be paid up to $850,000 for two years to re­view pos­si­ble mis­steps in the Austin po­lice crime lab that led to the is­sues found by the state.

Mean­while, Travis County pros­e­cu­tors have alerted de­fen­dants in 2,200 cases that their cases might be el­i­gi­ble to be re­viewed as a re­sult of pos­si­ble im­proper test­ing at the fa­cil­ity.

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