Harris County is moving forward with plans to create what is being called a regional crime lab.
At a meeting Tuesday, commissioners approved a plan that would lead the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences into becoming a regional crime lab.
The long-term plan is for the institute, formerly the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office, to move into a new building. County officials have asked the city to share costs for the facility if the Houston Police Department’s forensic operations are turned over to the new lab. The HPD crime lab has a backlog of thousands of sexual assault cases waiting for DNA testing.
The county’s plan for a regional lab begins with a pilot program that would allow the institute to take on some DNA cases from the HPD’s crime lab. Commissioners on Tuesday gave the pilot program the green light.
If approved by the city, the program could lead to the institute taking on HPD’s full case load and becoming a regional crime laboratory.
Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Director Art Storey told commissioners Tuesday that it has been frustrating waiting for the city to commit to sharing costs for the new facility.
He said the county should begin planning for the expanded facility, which would be built with $80 million in bond funds approved by voters in 2007, even without the city’s agreement to help fund it.
Reading this story, and especially the typically jerkish Steve Radack comment at the end, gave me the impression that the county was somehow stuck waiting for the city to take action before it could move forward. That isn’t the case, however. I called Art Storey to ask him if the city and the county had had any conversations about sharing operational expenses for this facility before the bond referendum of 2007. He couldn’t give me a definitive answer on that, as his involvement came primarily after the referendum, but he did give me a lot of information about where things stand and where they will likely go. From his perspective, the city has made its position clear (as noted in the story, a recent letter signed by Andy Icken indicated the city would like to participate but is currently constrained by its budget; you might have heard a little something about that), and Storey wanted the county to get moving now because most of the key stakeholders – the Medical Examiner, the District Attorney, and the bulk of the courts – are under the county’s purview and they need this to get going. The city’s involvement can be worked out later, he told me, after the county has set up shop in some space that will be leased in the Medical Center area. The bottom line was that Storey wanted the county to move forward, which is what they have now done. He wasn’t worried about where the city was, and didn’t want the county to be hung up on that.
Storey also answered another question I had, which was how exactly “regional” was being defined here. Did this allow for the possibility of other law enforcement agencies, from other counties, using this facility? After emphasizing the word “possibility”, Storey said that once the Institute was up and running and demonstrated what it could do, other entities might inquire about making use of it, and if they did they would be accommodated as resources allowed. He cited the example of TransStar as something whose purpose expanded once it got going. Having said that, he made it clear that what made the most sense was for the two biggest players – Houston and Harris County – to fund and be served by it. The vote by Commissioners Court was a key step in that direction. My thanks to Art Storey for clarifying this for me.