Staffing boosted at regional crime lab

The Anoka County Board has taken action to resolve staffing issues and accelerate accreditation for the Tri-County Regional Forensic Laboratory (RFL) at the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office.

Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart, then a captain, before the Tri-County Regional Forensic Laboratory opened at the new Anoka County Public Safety Center. File photo by Eric Hagen
Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart, then a captain, before the Tri-County Regional Forensic Laboratory opened at the new Anoka County Public Safety Center. File photo by Eric Hagen

In 2008, Anoka County entered in an agreement with Wright and Sherburne counties to create a Tri-County RFL to handle drug chemistry (toxicology) and latent prints testing, and ultimately, testing for DNA.

The crime lab is located at the public safety center into which the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office moved in 2010.

According to Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart, the purpose of the lab is to prevent the backlog and delays of testing of forensic materials that local law enforcement has endured at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).

Initial planning and implementation of the RFL, which began five years ago, anticipated that over time all three disciplines would need at least three forensic scientists to be effective, Stuart said.

Right now, there are two forensic scientists each working in the drug chemistry and latent prints areas, but drug chemistry has been one scientist short since January because of medical reasons and that is expected to run through the end of the year, he said.

That’s why Stuart recommended that a new drug chemistry forensic scientist be hired right now instead of waiting to 2013.

In addition, Stuart also proposed moving up the hiring of two DNA forensic scientists to 2012 in an effort to speed the process of getting the accreditation needed to put the DNA testing operation in place.

“We realize that from the outset we must hire three qualified and fully trained DNA scientists in order to be successful and meet our Tri-County partners and our customers’ needs,” Stuart said in a memo to the Anoka County Board’s Management Committee.

One DNA forensic scientist was included in the 2012 budget and Stuart requested the county board hire two more this year instead of waiting until 2013.

According to Stuart, bringing two DNA forensic scientists on board this year instead of 2013 will enable the lab to move forward with the lengthy accreditation process in a more timely manner.

“Our goal is to have the DNA lab operating by the fall of 2013,” Stuart said.

But he called the national accreditation process and all that it involves “long and grinding.”

“We have to ensure that it is up to that level,” Stuart said.

Right now, all DNA tests for law enforcement investigations are done at the BCA lab and there are long delays, he said.

Having the capability to do latent prints and drug chemistry testing at the RFL has enabled law enforcement in the three counties to get timely testing responses for their criminal investigations, according to Stuart.

For example, because of its workload the BCA would only do latent print testing for crimes against a person cases, not property crimes, Stuart said.

“We are able to do both,” he said.

But operating at less than an optimal staffing level of at least three scientists in each discipline has “proven to be highly problematic,” Stuart told the board.

“Each discipline requires a peer to review each piece of work and if one staff member is unavailable, on an extended leave or leaves employment, we are left with the inability to process and complete the required and necessary workload,” he said.

The board, on the recommendation of its Management Committee, voted 6-1 to approve the hiring of three non-budgeted forensic scientist positions, two for DNA and one for drug chemistry.

According to Stuart, there is money available in the 2012 RFL budget that would make the new hires “budget neutral.”

The recommendation has also been approved by Wright and Sherburne counties, he said.

Under the agreement Anoka County has with Wright and Sherburne counties, all three counties contribute to the cost of the RFL based on population.

That means that Anoka County shoulders 62 percent of the cost, Stuart said.

County Commissioner Carol LeDoux, who chairs the board’s Public Safety Committee, supported the new hirings as a means to get the certification needed to get the DNA testing capability online sooner for the public’s benefit, she said.

“There is a horrendous amount of time to wait with the BCA,” LeDoux said.

But County Commissioner Matt Look, who voted no, looked on the crime lab as a case of government redundancy since the BCA performs the same functions.

Stating that he did not blame Stuart because he “inherited” the crime lab project, Look said that the backlog problem at the BCA is a breakdown that needed to be addressed at the state level.

But County Commissioner Dan Erhart backed the RFL and new hirings as an example of the county once again showing leadership to pick up the slack from the state.

According to Erhart, when he visited the BCA lab on one occasion, he was struck by how few people were working there.

And the success of the Anoka County Medical Examiner’s Office in expanding its coverage to more than 20 counties in the state was an example of county leadership that could be replicated by the RFL, Erhart said.

Anoka County Board Chairperson Rhonda Sivarajah said the testing backlog at the BCA was a public safety issue because delays have meant that suspects are still on the street or there is not the evidence to go to trial.

Stuart described the RFL as “an opportunity that poses some challenges,” he said.

“But it has and will continue to cut down on the victimization of people,” Stuart said.

The goal is to have the new forensic scientists on board by July 1, but October might be more realistic, given hiring/background procedures, Stuart said.

Currently, the lab is staffed by eight people, including the director, quality assurance person, two intake evidence technicians and four forensic scientists (two for latent prints and two for drug chemistry), he said.

Last month, the county board approved the purchase of two software programs to enhance the efficiency of the crime lab at a total cost of $110,567,40, including license and maintenance fees.

One program is a laboratory information management system and the other is an evidence tracking software program for the property rooms that communicates with the laboratory information management system.

The cost of these software programs is included in the 2012 RFL budget.