The city of St. Paul will pay two out-of-state companies about $140,800 to evaluate and reform operations at the troubled St. Paul Police Department crime lab, and train employees.
The crime lab shut down its drug chemistry unit in July after lab employees acknowledged they did not follow any written standard operating procedures and may have relied on equipment contaminated with illegal drugs. The closure threw thousands of drug cases into question.
The lab tested evidence for Washington, Ramsey, and Dakota Counties and the Minnesota State Patrol. The problems at the lab became public when defense attorneys challenged the reliability of the lab's drug testing in several cases in Dakota County.
St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith announced his plan to order a review of the crime lab in mid-July, but the police department did not provide details until Thursday. According to documents provided by the St. Paul Police Department, the city of St. Paul signed six-month contracts with Iowa-based Schwarz Forensic Enterprises and Texas-based Integrated Forensic Laboratories in late August.
The contracts indicate the St. Paul lab will reform its operations and seek accreditation from the American Society of Crime Lab Directors. Although Minnesota law does not require crime labs to be accredited, national and state forensic experts have pushed for mandatory accreditation to ensure all labs follow basic scientific procedures.
If the St. Paul lab becomes accredited, it would be required to follow specific procedures and allow regular inspections of the lab.
Minnesota currently has at least three government-run accredited crime labs, including the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office crime lab and two labs run by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul and Bemidji.
Review will include drug chemistry, fingerprint and crime scene units
The two companies will focus on different areas in the lab. Integrated Forensic Laboratories will receive an estimated $68,800 to review the lab's drug chemistry unit, a process that will include the review of approximately 100 cases and training for lab employees.
The company, which runs an accredited lab in Texas, will also prepare standard operating procedures, conduct validation studies to determine whether the lab's methods are reliable, and assist in helping the lab gain accreditation from the American Society of Crime Lab Directors. It will prepare a report detailing any problems in the lab and how they should be fixed.
In its proposal, the company noted it has "direct, recent experience in remediating and saving" the El Paso Police Department crime lab, which was shut down in June 2011 after a "very bad audit." The lab regained full accreditation by June 2012, the proposal said.
The company is also "discreet," according to its proposal. "We do not advertise the relationships we enjoy with our clients or converse with the media, unless specifically instructed to do so," the proposal said.
The other company, Schwarz Forensic Enterprises, will receive an estimated $72,000 to review and evaluate the crime lab's fingerprint and crime scene units. The lab's fingerprint and crime scene units remain open, despite allegations by a crime lab employee that the former head of the crime lab, Sgt. Shay Shackle, stored non-drug evidence in a hallway.
St. Paul Police Department officials have not determined how long the crime lab's drug testing unit will remain closed, according to police spokesperson Howie Padilla, but the contracts and company proposals released Thursday indicate the lab may resume drug testing within the next few months.
Integrated Forensic Laboratories, in its proposal, told the city "it estimates it can install a functioning, accredited crime lab in [St. Paul Police Department] facilities within 60 days."