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Can an Independent Crime Lab Ease Austin's Testing Backlog?

City of Austin

The backlog in forensic DNA evidence in Austin is so serious that local judges and the Travis County district attorney called the mayor and City Council members to discuss the situation. Then they followed up with letters.

On Tuesday, the council agreed to fund three new jobs for forensic chemists. But the embarrassment prompted council member Laura Morrison to promote a new idea in dealing with the city’s forensic needs.

“There is an alternative to APD running a crime lab, and that is to have an entity that APD, of course, helps support, that’s independent and provides regional services,” Morrison said told Police Chief Art Acevedo. “Have you contemplated that? Are you familiar with that model?”

“The problem with that is that you lose complete control of the prioritizing of the testing,” Acevedo said.

Acevedo is not sold on the idea for Austin, but he said Houston is creating an independent forensic lab. That city’s police department has struggled for years with a Harris County lab that produced many flawed forensic investigations that, in turn, led to a series of documented wrongful convictions.

It’s worked well elsewhere, according to the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations. Virginia, Arkansas and Alabama have also moved to having independent labs.

But Dean Gialamas, crime lab director for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a national forensic consultant, says getting rid of a police run forensic lab is not always a magic pill.

“What happens a couple of years down the road after that interest has waned?” Gialamas said. “Is that lab going to be able to get the resources it needs? I’ve seen that fail over time, and so I kind of question sometimes the idea of that kind of autonomy.”

As crime has steadily decreased nationwide, Gialamas says, the demand for analyzing forensic data has skyrocketed. That’s in part because it’s proved more accurate than other sources of evidence and because more labs are able to process evidence.

Another challenge for independent labs is the hurdles they have to clear to access law enforcement data.

Morrison says her staff will look further into the idea before she formally presents a request to the City Council.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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