Saturday, September 01, 2012

El Paso hires private crime lab for in-house testing

In July, Grits published a post predicting that "El Paso may close crime lab, outsource controlled substance testing," and the El Paso City Council this week pulled the trigger on the deal, though not without some debate, reported KVIA-TV ("El Paso city council hires outside lab to run police department's crime lab," Aug. 28) which let us know that "City Council voted 6 to 1 to hire Integrated Forensic Laboratories (IFL) the group hired temporarily to help with that out-sourcing, as a permanent in-house option." But the decision wasn't without controversy:
It will cost about half-a-million dollars a year or $2.5 million over the next five years.

City Rep. Dr. Michiel Noe voted against it because of that high cost, stating there was still a free option, which was having the Texas Department of Public Safety handle all of the testing

Noe also objected to the City paying for the entire cost and not involving the County, which he said also benefits from crime lab services.

District Attorney Jaime Esparza said sending testing to DPS takes longer and the majority of his drug cases come from within the city, while the county shares other costs.
In truth, though, the "free option" isn't really free at all. True, DPS doesn't charge for crime lab services, but they have a very large backlog which can take many months to process a case. In cases where the defendant sits in jail until the results come back, which we might conservatively estimate at $50 per day, assuming they have no medical or mental health problems, pharmacy needs, etc. that boosts the cost significantly more than paying for IFL's crime lab services. Savings in county jail costs alone will likely exceed the cost. Local taxpayers are better off with this arrangement all the way around.

Recently a regional fee for service crime lab run by Sam Houston State in Montgomery County had to close because they unexpectedly lost their lease. The Conroe Courier described the effects of switching from the SHSU lab to the "free" DPS one:
With the loss of the SHSU crime lab – which serves more than 70 agencies – Montgomery County now will have to send tests to a Texas Department of Public Safety Regional Crime Lab in Austin, which serves many more clients, [Assistant District Attorney Warren] Diepraam said.“With the Regional Crime Lab, we got results in a week or two,” he said. “Unfortunately, the DPS lab has a backlog of cases. For drug toxicology tests, it could take six to nine months to get results. That’s a concern to the district attorney that we’ll have people staying in jail while we’re waiting on results.”
And of course, costs for testing at DPS aren't actually "free," they're just kicked down the road to state taxpayers who must pick up the tab. For my part, I think DPS should switch to a fee for service model as well for everybody but its own officers. I live in Austin where taxpayers already finance a crime lab. Why should taxpayers here also pay for El Paso's testing, or the myriad other agencies that use DPS because they're too cheap to pay for their own?

Plus, when agencies think of the service as "free," the services are over-utilized. That's particularly true in DNA cases, where the backlog is worst. Agencies don't treat requests for testing with the same sort of cost-benefit analysis as do agencies which must operate within their own budgets.

At the end of the day, DPS' "free for everybody" model creates false incentives and is IMO unsustainable as demand for crime lab services is growing much faster than the actual crime rate. Switching to a fee for service model would rationalize the process from a budget perspective and stop taxpayers in jurisdictions with their own crime labs from subsidizing the rest of the state. It's probably something the Legislature should consider next session.


FleaStiff said...

Fee for Services can lead to pressure on police to select tests rather than forensic personnel selecting the tests. This can lead to such circumstances as Lab performs dna tests on knife but then the case gets to court and prosecutor asks "is this knife the murder weapon".

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Perhaps, FleaStiff, but I think those scenarios would present and resolve themselves pretty quickly. Testing has to be prioritized by somebody when budgets are limited, or else months-long backlogs shift costs to other parts of the system, like jails. IMO shifting to fee for service would force everybody to adopt more realistic expectations and promote fiscal discipline in an arena where right now jurisdictions without their own labs falsely pretend that the service is "free." That's unsustainable.

Anonymous said...

For starters, why doesn't El Paso just hire people that can do the job professionally, ethically, and intelligently?

Or, why doesn't DPS set up a lab in El Paso (with "free" service)?

And, FleaStiff, your hypothetical also extends down to the forensic analyst who will also get pressured to "find" the results that the police/DA needs.

Because of this possibility, forensic personnel should NEVER select the test. The police/DAO should be informed (by the forensic analyst) what tests the labs provide, limitations of the tests, and the error rates. Minimal contextual info should be given to analyst in order to keep them unbiased.

And, does anyone know why the SHSU lab lost their lease after less than a year? Why was there not a 10 year lease signed? It just seems ridiculous to set up a very expensive crime lab just to have it moved to a new location. It's a HUGE costly undertaking!

Anonymous said...

My impression is that in instances where analyst bias has been documented the bias doesn't result from the analysts having too much information, but from having laboratories too intertwined with law enforcement, so that analysts view come to view themselves as part of the prosecution and not as independent agents providing independent evaluations. When labs are independently funded and administered government departments, separate from police agencies and DA offices, then it is possible to create a culture of independence reasonably easily. When a lab is part of a police department, or in this case is a contracted service provider to a police department, it becomes more difficult to ensure true independence.