St. Paul crime lab fixes estimated at $1M

St. Paul Police Department
The St. Paul crime lab is housed at the St. Paul Police Department in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, July 25, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The city is considering spending more than $1 million to fix its troubled crime lab. But questions remain about what the lab's future will look like.

Some of that money could pay for physical upgrades that St. Paul city officials hope will help restore the lab's credibility. The lab suspended drug testing months ago amid accusations of sloppy work and possible contamination of evidence.

With the help of two outside consulting firms, the city is re-thinking the next phase of the crime lab. Mayor Chris Coleman is asking the City Council for more than $1 million in contingent money in next year's budget to pay for the improvements.

But so far, the City Council has not been told what exactly the money would pay for.

"There's a lot of things being weighed by the police department and the mayor's office, trying to figure out exactly what makes the most sense for St. Paul," said Councilmember Russ Stark. "What do we essentially have to do, and what things might make sense to allow others do? Those things will be figured out next year."

The lab's future is unclear because the city is waiting for the consultants to craft recommendations on how to improve the facility and its practices. A report is expected in a few weeks.

The proposed budget action, which is not final, could pay for new equipment, reorganized or expanded lab space, and staff training. The crime lab's current annual budget is about $750,000.

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith
St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith addresses the media during a press conference Thursday, July 19, 2012 regarding problems with the department's crime lab.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The St. Paul Police Department is committed to improving the facility, spokesman Howie Padilla said.

"At the heart of what we're trying to do is bring the crime lab up to the standards that not only that Mayor Chris Coleman expects, not only that Chief Tom Smith expects, but that our community expects, and quite frankly, what they deserve," Padilla said.

The proposed upgrades are just the latest fallout from a saga unfolding since July. The problems first attracted attention when lab employees testified in court that they did not follow any written procedures and may have used equipment contaminated with illegal drugs. The allegations threw thousands of drug cases into question in Dakota, Washington, and Ramsey counties.

Since then, the head of the St. Paul lab was reassigned. No one has been fired, police say, but some staffers were let go after the lab's workload decreased when the police chief suspended testing.

It is clear the police are open to partnering with other labs in the region. City Council President Kathy Lantry said they have already started conversations with Ramsey County's crime lab about sharing resources.

Although St. Paul could send all of its evidence to the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for testing, Lantry said the department wants to keep some kind of in-house crime lab intact.

"The BCA can do all these services, but how long does it take to get the results? They're a statewide agency, and they have a lot on their plate," Lantry said. "If we have a bigger case that needs immediate attention, our police department wants to be able to move quicker. I think that makes sense."

Lantry said that despite the unknowns, she thinks investing in the lab is a good start. The police department would need to return to the council sometime in the next year to outline how it intends to spend the money.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said he is not ready to say whether his county will return to the St. Paul crime lab for testing. The county stopped sending drug cases there once the allegations came to light. Orput said he would like to see the lab receive official accreditation, something the lab currently lacks.

"The jury expects that, the courts expect that, and now, we do. If they're going to put that kind of money into that kind of a lab, they're going to want to get it accredited," Orput said. "Once they begin that process, I'd be comfortable using them."

The city of St. Paul has not decided if it will seek accreditation.

The City Council is expected to adopt a final budget next week.

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