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Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences

Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences officially opens

Excellent news.

I still want one of these

The greater Houston region now has a sophisticated asset to investigate and solve crimes with the official opening of the new Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences (HCIFS).

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other dignitaries, including Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, attended a ribbon cutting ceremony at the new facility on Thursday March 16th.

The Institute is located in the Texas Medical Center and it is an impressive state of the art nine story building.

Funded by a bond that was approved by the voters back in 2007, Harris County has invested 75 million dollars in it.

The facility serves both as a crime lab and as the medical examiner’s office.

Among other tasks, its staff will perform autopsies for cases investigated by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) and the Houston Police Department (HPD).

Doctor Dwayne Wolf, deputy chief medical examiner at the HCIFS, explains that “about 11,000 deaths are reported to our office every year, of which we bring in 5,000 bodies for examination, either for autopsy or external examination.”

Construction of this facility was approved to begin in June of 2014, with an expected timeline of three years, so this was on schedule. I expect great things.

Harris County crime lab experiencing DNA testing backlog

These things do happen.

I want one of these

Never miss a chance to embed the DNA Robot

Expanded testing for property crimes has helped create a backlog of more than 4,600 DNA cases in the Harris County crime lab, straining its ability to complete the processing of such evidence for sexual assaults and even homicide cases in a timely manner.

Officials with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences say a relentless uptick in property crime, robbery and assault cases has stretched the lab’s resources. The spikes can be traced in part to the lab’s own push in recent years to expand its forensic operations and offer law enforcement agencies more DNA testing for property crimes.

The lab serves more than 60 law enforcement agencies, which rely on it to process DNA evidence as part of criminal investigations. Officials are particularly concerned about how the backlog has affected sexual assault cases, which they’ve pledged to make a priority as the cases have recently taken longer to finish.

Sexual assault cases took on average of 172 days to complete in 2015, far from the county’s 60-day goal and the roughly 60 to 90 days that they took from 2009 to 2013 The average for homicides and death investigations is now 238 days, though it is more difficult to set a benchmark in such cases because evidence often comes in piecemeal over time.

The backlog – defined by county lab officials as containing any case that has not been completed – has set off a debate over how to prioritize DNA testing in the short term and handle lesser offenses such as property crimes in the long term.

[…]

[Crime Lab Director Roger] Kahn said the lab already has essentially halted analyses of DNA in some property crimes. Last July, the institute said it would suspend “touch DNA” analysis – such as testing for microscopic skin cells containing DNA that naturally rub off on objects – for almost all property crimes.

The moves have contributed to a drop in the number of sexual assault cases that take more than 60 days to complete: after reaching 252 in January, that number was 148 last month, Kahn said.

He stressed that the high numbers are also in part because of new protocols to reanalyze some cases that have samples containing multiple people’s DNA. These, he said, can often be the most complex cases.

All this being said, Kahn acknowledged that the turnaround times are too high.

He said lab officials are looking at halting some analyses of assault and robbery cases. The lab is also planning to work with sexual assault nurse examiners to better identify samples to analyze in such cases, and is weighing other possible workflow improvements.

For their part, county commissioners on Tuesday approved the crime lab’s move to apply for a National Institute of Justice grant of more than $645,000 that would help its DNA division – the Forensic Genetic Laboratory – reduce the backlog. It has applied for and received the same grant since 2005.

Commissioners also approved a roughly $100,000 contract to outsource some property-crime testing to a private company, Bode Cellmark Forensics, an uncommon move but one that the county has made in the past.

[…]

It’s unclear what will happen to property crime cases, and possibly robbery and assault cases, that the county crime lab may set aside to focus on sexual assaults and homicides. Kahn said the lab works closely with law enforcement and the district attorney’s office to prioritize cases, even those involving property crimes.

At Wednesday’s meeting, District Attorney Devon Anderson questioned whether the lab should be making decisions of what types of cases to prioritize.

Sheriff Ron Hickman said telling the public that the county lab had the technology to solve crimes, but couldn’t use it because of lack of resources, would not “play well.”

“How do you get to say, ‘No?'” Hickman said.

Kahn said the current focus is on sexual assault cases. Then lab officials, with other public officials, will determine how best to use the lab’s resources.

There’s a lot there and I don’t want to make too big a deal over it. Both DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman raise good questions, for which they deserve better answers than “we’ll figure it out later”. If this is a matter of resources, then Commissioners Court needs to address that. The County Crime Lab serves multiple cities in addition to the county, so it’s not just their own business that’s being affected.

We can’t discuss the Harris County crime lab without mentioning the Houston lab and the ongoing debate over whether the two should merge. I’ve noted before that there are questions about how the county handles crime lab issues and how the city’s needs would be accounted for. This situation highlights those concerns. As the story notes, the city’s crime lab has its own backlog issues, though they are smaller and seem to be on track towards resolution. I’m just pointing this out to note that there are questions to answer before anything can go forward. If you want this to go forward, which is certainly a reasonable thing, those questions need to be addressed. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s not nothing and shouldn’t be treated as nothing.

The pros and cons of merging the crime labs

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.

What happened to Sandra Bland?

This is horrible.

Sandra Bland

There are big questions about the final hours of Sandra Bland’s life. The official story is that the 28-year old committed suicide by hanging herself in a Waller County jail cell. Her family doesn’t buy it.

Bland, a black woman who graduated from Texas Prairie View A&M and had recently accepted a new job at the university, didn’t seem to her friends and family to be a suicide risk. And as ABC 7 in Chicago reported (Bland was originally from nearby Naperville), many have disputed the official story. “The Waller County Jail is trying to rule her death a suicide and Sandy would not have taken her own life,” longtime friend LaNitra Dean told the station. “Sandy was strong. Strong mentally and spiritually.”

We don’t know what happened in Bland’s cell, but we know that her initial encounter with police was contentious. Bland was pulled over Friday after she failed to signal a lane change. According to the Chicago Tribune, officials said Bland was about to drive off with a warning before she kicked the officer.

A bystander who observed the incident on University Drive in Prairie View filmed the arrest. It’s not easy to watch.

In the video, we see Bland in the prone position while a deputy pins her to the ground. She screams to the witness and asks the policemen why they’re hurting her. (According to police brutality activist Shaun King on Twitter, the witness says that Bland was pulled out of the car through her window.)

It’s unclear what danger the officers arresting an unarmed woman felt that they were in. Usually, failing to signal a lane change isn’t an offense that ends in handcuffs. (She was ultimately arrested for “assault on a public servant,” though the details of her alleged assault are similarly unclear.) It does, of course, come on the heels of other incidents in which police have deployed surprising amounts of force against Texans — particularly Texans of color — in recent months. In fact, police killed a man during a routine traffic stop similar to Bland’s.

[…]

The Texas Rangers are investigating Bland’s death now, and it may not end there. A Change.org petition launched Thursday morning urging the U.S. Justice Department to take over the investigation already has 5,000 signatures, and the DoJ has demonstrated a willingness to investigate situations like this in other high-profile deaths involving black citizens and the police.

In the meantime, #SandraBland has become a trending topic on Twitter, and that seems to have changed the way her death is being discussed in Waller. Yesterday, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis told ABC 7, “I do not have any information that would make me think it was anything other than just a suicide.” Today, speaking to KPRC in Houston, he was more thoughtful:

“I will admit it is strange someone who had everything going for her would have taken her own life,” he told NBC station KPRC in Houston. “That’s why it’s very important a thorough investigation is done and that we get a good picture of what Ms. Bland was going through the last four or five days of her life.”

“If there was something nefarious, or if there was some foul play involved, we’ll get to the bottom of that,” Mathis added.

There are a lot of eyes on Waller County right now, and someone will hopefully find the truth.

The Trib adds some details.

An autopsy classified the death as suicide by hanging, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences spokeswoman Tricia Bentley told The Post, and the sheriff’s office statement said it appeared to be from “self-inflicted asphyxiation.”

“The family of Sandra Bland is confident that she was killed and did not commit suicide,” Bland’s family said in a statement sent to the Tribune by the law firm they hired. “The family has retained counsel to investigate Sandy’s death.”

At the press conference, another of Bland’s sisters said that the two had a telephone conversation after Bland was taken into custody. Shante Needham said Bland was “very aggravated,” and thought she had broken her arm, according to the AP.

The Texas Rangers, an investigative arm of the state’s Department of Public Safety, are investigating the death. Additionally, the Department of Public Safety said it has asked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s assistance.

“At this time, the joint investigation by the Texas Rangers and the FBI is ongoing,” the release stated.

Shauna Dunlap, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s office in Houston, told the Houston Chronicle in an email that the agency would be “monitoring the local investigation until it is complete.”

“Once the local process takes its course, the FBI reviews all of the evidence and if warranted could pursue a federal investigation,” she wrote.

[…]

In his Facebook statement, Mathis, the district attorney, said his office “is actively consulting with and monitoring the investigation being conducted by the Texas Rangers into Ms. Bland’s death. Once the investigation is complete the matter will be turned over to a Waller County grand jury for any further proceedings deemed appropriate by them.”

He added: “Please allow us to do our jobs, and rest assured that Ms. Bland’s death is receiving the scrutiny it deserves.”

I certainly hope so. Everyone is watching, that’s for sure. You can click on that top link to see the video. There’s plenty of questions about what happened once Ms. Bland was in jail, but the questions begin with what happened at that traffic stop. How does someone get arrested – never mind carted off to jail – for failing to use a turn signal? Half of Houston would be incarcerated right now if the police here enforced that. And then there’s this:

Hempstead Police Chief R. Glenn Smith, who was fired last month by elected city officials, is now the Republican Party’s nominee for Waller County sheriff.

Smith easily won in a runoff Tuesday, defeating Joseph “Joey” Williams 801 to 544, and will face Democrat Jeron Barnett in the November election.

Smith, 49, blamed his dismissal on small-town politics.

“In my opinion some of them possibly had an agenda for somebody else who is running for sheriff,” Smith said Thursday.

However, some in the community say the dismissal stems from incidents involving police misconduct toward African-Americans.

[…]

Activist Herschel Smith said many Hempstead residents expressed concerns about police conduct. He said two incidents that sparked worries involved a mistaken drug raid and a strip search conducted on area youths by Hempstead police.

Link via Daily Kos and Mic. Glenn Smith is now the Sheriff of Waller County. Maybe the one doesn’t have anything to do with the other, but with all that’s been happening, now and forever, there’s no benefit of the doubt to accrue. Sandra Bland and everyone else deserves a real answer. See #WhatHappenedToSandraBland on Facebook for more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

UPDATE: The Press has more.

Construction of joint processing center and forensics facility approved to begin

Good.

I want one of these

DNA robot pictures never get old

Several major building projects – including a state-of-the-art facility for the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences and a voter-approved jail inmate processing center – officially are in the pipeline after Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a $305 million capital improvement program.

[…]

At the top of the list is the $100 million city-county inmate processing center, which will be built across the street from the main county jail. The 254,000-square-foot facility is expected to help expedite inmate booking by allowing some to bypass certain time-consuming processes.

The county and city of Houston are splitting the cost to build the facility, which will allow the city to shutter its two aging jails when it opens in about three years. The county will contribute $70 million with a bond issue narrowly approved by voters last November; the city will provide $30 million.

Construction will begin this fall.

A $65 million building for the Institute of Forensic Sciences, which will break ground this fall, will house the county medical examiner and the county’s crime lab. Construction is expected to take two and a half years, said John Blount, director of architecture and engineering.

See here, here, and here for the background on the processing center. One of those links mentions that construction for the processing center is expected to take about three years. The Institute of Forensics Science is the county’s new crime lab facility. It was approved for construction back in 2012, and a separate DNA forensics lab is already open.

Groundbreaking on the county’s new DNA forensics lab

Cool.

Be careful moving that robot

Harris County officials on Tuesday broke ground on a new forensic genetics laboratory, to open later this year, which will let county scientists test DNA evidence in a growing number of cases.

The 15,000-square-foot facility, on Holcombe in the Texas Medical Center, could be considered the little brother of a new Institute of Forensic Sciences the county plans to begin building elsewhere in the Medical Center late next year. Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved $7 million for design work on the nine-story tower that will allow the institute to expand the rest of its services, including autopsies.

[…]

Dr. Luis Sanchez, the chief medical examiner, said the expansion also will let his staff further an effort with Baylor College of Medicine to investigate genetic causes for sudden death among infants and young adults, as well as add more fellowships for doctoral students.

See here and here for some background. What really interested me about this story, other than the chance to post that DNA robot picture again, was this:

The county’s move to expand its lab comes as city leaders look at plans to spin off Houston’s troubled crime lab. Mayor Annise Parker has proposed removing the city’s crime lab from the Houston Police Department and placing it under an appointed board.

Parker has said she welcomes county participation in her plan, but that seems unlikely.

County Judge Ed Emmett has called the idea a “nonstarter.”

That’s a much more pessimistic tone than what we had heard before from Judge Emmett. In February, when Mayor Parker unveiled her plan for the city’s crime lab, the Chron quoted Emmett as follows:

County Judge Ed Emmett said that although the city and county are on separate tracks right now, Parker’s proposal ultimately could make it easier for the two governments to come together.

“By having the LGC, it opens up more options for how the city can approach forensic science, including partnering with the Institute of Forensic Sciences,” Emmett said.

I was curious to know if something had changed, so I asked him. Judge Emmett told me that he didn’t intend for that to sound particularly negative. He and Mayor Parker have talked about this, many times and on friendly terms. He said it basically comes down to this: The city was approached several times, but didn’t want to sign on with the county when the money was carved out to build the new IFS lab, so the county finally just went forward at that time. The Mayor then unveiled her plans calling for a lab overseen by an appointed board. That was pretty much where the two sides kind of agreed to go their separate ways, because the county was not about to spend its money and build a new state-of-the-art lab and then have it overseen by a board appointed by the city and its interests. Judge Emmett said that as it is, the county’s lab is reviewed, overseen and accredited by six separate accrediting agencies.

He went on to add that this doesn’t mean there may not be some sort of agreement between the city and the county in the future, but it’s safe to say that the county is going forward with its own plans at this point. The city is welcome to join if it and the county find a format with which they are comfortable, but the county is not going to cede supervision of its nationally recognized forensics facilities to another government agency.

This is me speaking now. My interpretation is that the sticking point is the composition of the local government corporation, which would be appointed by the Mayor and approved by Council. I would presume that this is not necessarily the last word in how that is done, but even if it is there’s no reason to believe that the LGC couldn’t contract some operations to the county, or that there couldn’t be some kind of joint venture for some aspect of this. Judge Emmett may be closing one door, but there are still windows open. As I’ve said before, it makes too much sense for there not to be some kind of collaboration, it’s just a matter of what form it takes.

More details on the city’s crime lab plan

It’s starting to come into focus.

An independent crime lab could cost nearly 20 percent more than the current police-run operation, a high-level Parker administration official told a City Council committee this week.

Andy Icken, the mayor’s chief development officer, who is overseeing the project, said the annual budget of $22.8 million could rise to $27 million in its first years after its separation from the police department as it attempts to tackle a backlog of thousands of untested rape kits.

I don’t know about you, but I’d consider it money well spent to reduce that backlog of untested rape kits. As noted in the story, the crime lab isn’t being touted as a money-saver, but obviously the price tag is always an issue. I would think that as long as future costs are not projected to rise too much, this should not be insurmountable.

On Monday, Icken and [City Attorney David] Feldman unveiled what the board would look like. It would have five members: someone who understands the judicial system, someone with law enforcement experience, a criminal defense attorney, a forensics expert and someone with a finance background.

The Parker administration is looking for those people now and plans to come to the council in April with the local government corporation plan and five board nominees.

This structure would still allow the city to join forces with the county in their spiffy new building if the governance issue can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Since the county’s lab has excess capacity, if not an excess of cash, that might help reduce that rape kit backlog faster, which in turn might help keep the cost down. I have to believe the city and county will eventually work that out – it just makes too much sense not to. Stranger things have happened, though.

Solving car crimes with DNA

This story is basically a commercial for Harris County’s crime lab – Did you know that since they have no testing backlog on personal crime cases they can focus on property crimes? It’s true! – but it’s still pretty cool.

But do they look this good doing it?

For the last few years, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences aided area law enforcement in solving property crimes by testing evidence for “touch DNA” – microscopic skin cells containing DNA that naturally rub off when an object, like a car steering wheel, is touched. The technology can be used even if the suspect is wearing gloves because there’s a high likelihood the skin cells were transferred onto the gloves when the perpetrator was slipping them on.

“It was a pretty incredible tool for us to have to identify some of these suspects,” said Sgt. Terry Wilson, of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office auto-theft division. “These (burglary of a motor vehicle) cases are some of the hardest cases for law enforcement to solve because there’s almost never any eyewitnesses. There’s very rarely any good evidence left behind, fingerprint evidence and things like that, and once we started recovering some of this DNA, it was pretty exciting there for a while.”

DNA testing is a practice typically reserved for personal crimes like rape and murder. However, the forensic institute, formerly the medical examiner’s office, has also been performing DNA testing on evidence – containing either skin cells or bodily fluids, like blood and saliva – from property crime cases such as car break-ins and home invasions.

Since January 2008, the forensic institute made more than 3,000 matches to crime suspects in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System database, or CODIS, a national database used to store DNA profiles. Of those, about 75 percent were for property crime cases.

I believe they call those “epithelials” on the “CSI” shows. This is a great use of the technology, especially since property crimes generally have a low solve rate. But – you knew there would be a but, right? – there’s one small problem:

[C]ounty budget cuts have suspended testing in the auto theft division for now.

Oops. Well, maybe with the budget picture improving for Harris County, they’ll be able to get this back on track soon. Try not to have your car broken into until then, OK?

Meet the Houston Regional Forensic Science Center

Mayor Parker has revealed her vision for an independent regional crime lab.

Mayor Annise Parker proposed on Wednesday taking control of the city’s crime lab away from the police department and handing it to an independent seven-member board with expertise in forensic science and fiscal management.

“I clearly prefer to have our forensics sciences not under the influence of police, prosecution or politics,” Parker said.

There are no details yet on where the crime lab would be located or how to come up with what a written report identified as the “significant” start-up costs for a new crime lab.

[…]

Parker proposes forming a local government corporation — a hybrid of sorts between a non-profit organization and a government agency — that would become the new employer of 188 police and civilian employees who currently work for the police department’s crime lab. The city envisions that the seven-member board would include a representative from the Innocence Project, the organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

Parker herself would appoint the board members. Council would confirm them.

City Attorney David Feldman explained that such a board, because members could only be removed for wrongdoing, would be more independent than the county medical examiner, who is an at-will employee of Commissioners Court.

The LGC is the key to understanding the proposal, as it is the reason why the lab would be independent in a way that the county’s lab would not, at least as the Mayor sees it. The Chron story from before the announcement discusses that point.

Criminal justice advocates praised Parker’s push for independence.

“We definitely see it as a much-needed step to ensuring that people are not wrongfully convicted,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which advocates for human and civil rights and protecting public safety. “Independence is key.”

The city and county have disagreed on what independence means. County officials insist that although Commissioners Court has the power to appoint the director of its Institute for Forensic Sciences and to set its budget, the operation runs independently of the sheriff and the district attorney. Parker has said that to hand over the city’s crime lab work to the county “simply substitutes one government master for another government master.”

[…]

The mayor’s plan does not preclude merging operations with the county, [spokesperson Janice] Evans said.

“In fact, we hope we can reach agreement on something that would include more entities than the city,” she said. The local government corporation board Parker envisions would have the power to broker deals with other jurisdictions.

County Judge Ed Emmett said that although the city and county are on separate tracks right now, Parker’s proposal ultimately could make it easier for the two governments to come together.

“By having the LGC, it opens up more options for how the city can approach forensic science, including partnering with the Institute of Forensic Sciences,” Emmett said.

That’s what most people would surely like to see happen. It makes the most sense in terms of cost and complexity. We’ll see what happens as more of the details get filled in. According to the post-presentation story, the proposal won’t come up for a vote before next month, so there’s time for things to be tweaked. You can see the Mayor’s presentation here. Backstory on the city and county’s efforts so far can be found here, here, here, here, and here. Stace has more.

County approves building new forensics lab

The Institute of Forensic Sciences is getting a new home.

I want one of these

Commissioners Court on Tuesday gave staff the go-ahead to finalize a land deal with the Texas Medical Center that would give the county 2.79 acres at the northeast corner of Old Spanish Trail and Bertner.

The deal would require construction to begin on the new nine-story Institute of Forensic Sciences facility within two years; Art Storey, the county’s director of public infrastructure, said he plans to start in December 2013.

“Harris County is running out of its own capacity,” said District Attorney Pat Lykos. who urged the court to move forward. “It’s absolutely essential to the administration of justice that Commissioners Court did what they did today,” the district attorney declared.

[…]

The county’s new facility will handle autopsies and evidence testing. A separate county facility for DNA testing is expected to open elsewhere in the Medical Center, at 2450 Holcombe, this year.

See here for some background. This has been referred to as a “regional” crime lab, but so far the county and the city are not yet on the same page; in recent weeks, Mayor Parker has spoken about the possibility of going a different direction than the county. This story doesn’t shed any new light on that.

County officials on Tuesday said they hope the city eventually will join them, though all stressed the county lab must expand to meet growing demand, regardless of the city’s plan.

“There’s been this discussion of yet another regional crime lab, and we already have the capability of doing that,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

[…]

“As Mayor Parker stated in her inaugural address, her goal is to create an independent crime lab that can handle all of the city’s forensic needs,” said Parker spokeswoman Jessica Michan. “We’ll continue our dialogue with Harris County to, hopefully, achieve that goal together.”

There are common interests, but as yet not a common vision. Maybe by the time this thing is built we’ll have it all figured out.

More on the crime lab and the city jail

Here we have some more information about Mayor Parker’s plans for the crime lab, though it’s still not really clear where this is going.

Parker wants to make the lab independent of HPD and the city, overseen instead by a local government board similar to the Port of Houston Authority, whose members are jointly appointed by the city, county and other local municipalities. Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said a proposal may come before City Council this spring.

County leaders say their Institute of Forensic Sciences already is independent, free from law enforcement influence. They point to its respected work and lack of a case backlog.

Parker, however, said the city lab’s future is not with Harris County.

“The area that I’m in control of is to have an independent crime lab,” the mayor said Wednesday. “If that can become a regional crime lab where the county is a full participant, I’d love to see that happen. Sending all our work over to Harris County simply substitutes one government master for another government master.”

County Judge Ed Emmett said the apparent disagreement seems to be a concern over “whose name is on the door,” and said he hopes that can be overcome.

“This is a perfect opportunity to consolidate a government service,” Emmett declared. “If they want to go off and duplicate services by creating it somewhere else – fine, but we’re going to move forward with a world-class Institute of Forensic Sciences.”

I’m not sure I understand this. I can see where the Mayor is coming from, and if her belief is that the city would be more of a tenant to the county in the Institute of Forensic Sciences than a partner with them then her reluctance makes some sense, but I think Judge Emmett makes a strong point. If this boils down to an issue of governance, it’s worth trying to work out. If it’s more fundamental than that, then I’ll need to learn more about what the city’s vision is, and how much it will cost compared to what we’re doing now and what we could be doing with the IFS.

Then there’s the city’s jail, which have had their own problems of late.

Parker said the city jails could be phased out even without the type of joint processing center that bond voters rejected in 2007.

The city is negotiating to buy a property that would be used a “sobering center” to divert some inmates from the jail.

“If someone just needs a place to sleep it off, sober up, maybe get connected to some social-service help, we think we can accommodate that,” Parker said.

Services, Evans said, could include help for the mentally ill, whom Parker said also must be diverted from jail. Such steps could reduce the city jail population enough to allow the remaining inmates to be handed to the county, the mayor said.

Keeping the mentally ill out of jail has long been a topic of discussion at the county, Emmett said, but the problem likely will take an expensive facility to solve.

I like this idea, though we’ll have to see what a “sobering center” is and how it differs in function and cost from the jail. Philosophically, it’s the right direction, as is the principle of diverting the mentally ill from the jail to other facilities that can actually help them. Whether it truly requires an “expensive facility” or not remains to be seen, but I think this has a decent chance of being a viable alternative to that. Grits has more.

Harris County moves forward with new crime lab

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.