The calls to merge the city and county crime labs are back, but not everyone likes the idea.
Merging Houston’s and Harris County’s crime labs, an idea that was rejected several years ago by the city’s mayor when forensic work was shifted from the police department to a new independent agency, is getting a fresh look by local officials eager to save money and avoid duplication.
All of the members of the Harris County Commissioners Court are renewing calls for the county to take over forensic work from the city lab, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week that he is interested in pursuing either a merger or further partnership with the county, in contrast to his predecessor.
Yet some at the city’s forensic science center are loathe to forego its independent structure. They wonder whether a shakeup for a lab only just pulling away from its troubled history would cause more harm than good.
“I think cooperation between the two organizations is entirely possible,” said Peter Stout, chief operating officer of the Houston Forensic Science Center. “But merger? I’m not sure whether the citizens are going to get the benefit from that on a timeline that makes sense. And they risk backing up on demonstrable progress that we’ve made to this point.”
Even so, Turner has asked his chief development officer to explore what such a move would entail as county staffers examine potential funding and governance for such a venture and how it might affect the time it takes to process evidence.
“How much volume do they have at the City of Houston? What would have to take place as (to) not only the amount of space, but how would we merge?” are among the other questions, county budget director Bill Jackson said.
Despite mounting political enthusiasm for a joint venture, however, several city forensic science officials were skeptical of the idea, noting the logistical challenges of a merger they characterized as financially and scientifically risky.
“We’re not producing a widget here,” said David Leach, the group’s chief financial officer. “We’re producing a service which is helping protect the citizens. So, how much are you willing to risk?”
Such an endeavor would require negotiations over governance and funding rooted in the politically touchy question of control.
“What’s the structure going to look like? How’s that going to work? Who’s going to fund it? What are the working cultures of the two labs like? You could end up with two groups of employees with different working philosophies,” said William King, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University.
The county’s Institute of Forensic Sciences now reports to county commissioners, the county’s governing board. None of the staff work for law enforcement.
The Houston Forensic Science Center, on the other hand, is overseen by a board of directors appointed by the mayor. About four of 10 staffers are city employees, either HPD officers or civilians.
Governance was among the sticking points after a civil grand jury recommended consolidating the crime labs for the city of Los Angeles and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, said Barry Fisher, former director of their sheriff’s crime lab.
The move could have had potential savings of nearly $3 million, according to the grand jury. But they kept their operations separate, Fisher said, calling the prospect of the county taking over city police forensic work a “deal breaker.”
“Sheriff’s and LAPD management indicated that they did not believe it was feasible to consolidate the two agencies’ crime lab services into a single agency,” according to a 2010 audit of the project. “They believed that differences in forensic policies, possible conflicts over operations and prioritization of cases, and additional administrative requirements made consolidating the services unworkable.”
Fisher said city leaders worried about their ability to prioritize cases if they had to compete with other jurisdictions for crime lab services. Instead the city and county work together in the same building in a partnership with a local university, which has produced other benefits, Fisher said.
“There’s interaction on a regular, daily basis,” he said. “I’ve watched people who are working on a particularly difficult, high-profile case walk over to somebody in the other lab, the city lab, and say ‘What do you think about this?’ ”
Governance was the main reason why Mayor Parker declined to pursue a joint crime lab. She also noted in the exit interview she did with me that the projected savings from a joint operation would be minimal. Be that as it may, this Chron story from last July illustrates the concern over governance:
The thieves leave invisible evidence on kitchen countertops, china cabinets, garage doors and steering wheels that can lead to their undoing: microscopic skin cells that contain their DNA.
In Harris County, these “touch DNA” samples have in recent years identified hundreds of suspects in home burglaries and car break-ins that would have been nearly unsolvable without them.
But now the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences has sent out a memo to the 69 law enforcement agencies it serves suspending touch DNA analysis due to diminished resources and burgeoning demand.
Officials were forced to temporarily halt the service, ironically, because testing for touch DNA has been so successful.
“We didn’t anticipate this remarkable growth and what law enforcement has done to embrace DNA testing services in general,” said Dr. Roger Kahn, the forensic institute’s crime laboratory director. “We need to reassess our service levels in order to keep up.”
The suspension will not affect the Houston Police Department, which relies on the city’s crime lab to perform DNA analysis. The Houston Forensic Science Center began performing DNA analysis in some property crime cases after the city cleared HPD’s backlog of thousands of rape kits awaiting DNA testing.
But the county crime lab’s suspension of the cutting-edge forensic testing, which it took the initiative to offer eight years ago, could impact property crime investigations for dozens of law enforcement agencies.
It’s a matter of how things get prioritized, and who gets to decide what those priorities are. Houston and HPD would be the biggest customer in a joint crime lab, but not the only one. What happens when the city has a disagreement with a decision the joint crime lab makes? Or when the city feels its needs are not being adequately met? These are not insurmountable problems, but they do have to be addressed before it makes sense to get hitched. If and when they are worked out to the point that everyone feels their needs can be met, then it makes sense to proceed. Until then, I understand why the city is reluctant to give up something that is working for them.