Troubled St. Paul crime lab: Officials knew of problems, new documents show

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith
Emails show that St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith, pictured above at a 2012 press conference, knew about the lack of adequate training for crime lab employees nearly three months before the lab suspended drug testing.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Nearly 700 pages of internal St. Paul Police Department emails offer more evidence that top officials knew about problems with the crime lab's drug testing unit months before it was shut down

Emails and other documents show several St. Paul police officials knew about the lack of procedures at the St. Paul police crime lab in early April, yet allowed the lab to continue processing evidence that helped convict people of drug crimes.

Police Chief Thomas Smith suspended drug testing in July after lab employees testified in court that they did not follow any standard written procedures and may have relied on equipment contaminated by cocaine. Smith also reassigned the lab's director.

The drug testing unit remains closed. A judge has not yet issued a ruling in the Dakota County case that exposed problems at the lab.

The documents offer further confirmation of previous reporting by MPR News that top police officials knew the lab's work did not follow basic scientific practices.

The documents also provide new insight into the frustration of lab employees, the concerns of the Dakota County Drug Task Force and the collaboration between the head of the crime lab and Dakota County prosecutors.

Police provided emails from March to July 2012 and other documents in response to a data practices request. Many of the emails refer to concerns raised in more than 5,000 pages of internal police documents obtained by MPR News in August 2012.

"STRONG NARCOTICS SMELL"

Among the items released is a "crime lab site inspection" report dated April 4, 2012. Police inspectors found the narcotics lab was "acceptable," but noted that the vault used to store illegal drugs "had a strong narcotics smell" and "is running low on space." The crime lab was given advance notice of the inspection.

St. Paul Police Department spokesperson Howie Padilla said the report does not mean that the vault is contaminated or cannot store evidence securely. He said it's possible that "there could be a lingering odor" from the drugs before they were securely placed in the drug vault.

Emails also show that Smith, the police chief, knew about the lack of adequate training for crime lab employees nearly three months before the lab suspended drug testing. Assistant Chief Kathy Wuorinen noted the problem in an email to Smith on April 28, 2012.

"Training has been lacking in that unit for a number of years and is an issue now," Wuorinen wrote. "There have been advancements in a number of areas that we have not kept up on."

Padilla, the police spokesperson, said Smith responded by offering more training opportunities.

Wuorinen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

DAKOTA COUNTY DRUG TASK FORCE RAISES CONCERNS

Emails show that the Dakota County Drug Task Force, one of the agencies that relied on the lab for drug testing, considered severing ties with the lab in April after it learned of a March 30 meeting in which criminalist Kari McDermott, who worked for the St. Paul lab, acknowledged gaps in the lab's scientific procedures.

The task force's chief deputy, Tim Leslie, emailed Wuorinen, the assistant St. Paul police chief, on April 4, 2012 to request more information about the lab's operation.

He attached five pages of meeting notes taken by a prosecutor. The notes include information about how the lab did not regularly run tests to determine whether the testing equipment was contaminated.

"The task force would like to continue our working relationship with the SPPD crime lab as we think that you do a great job," Leslie wrote. "Let us know when we can meet to discuss this."

In an April 5, 2012 email Wuorinen told Leslie that she was "very comfortable with our lab and what we do,"

The task force decided to continue sending drugs to the lab.

EMPLOYEES RAISE CONCERNS

Several employees thought the lab needed to make changes in the months leading up to the suspension of drug testing, the emails show.

Criminalist Kelly Hervin was concerned about the lack of written standard operating procedures in the lab's fingerprint analysis division, according to an April 10, 2012 Hervin sent to a co-worker.

Others feared retaliation if they raised concerns, warned Sgt. Greg Gravesen in an April 30, 2012 email to Wuorinen, the assistant chief.

Gravesen suggested that it would be better if he and the head of the lab, Sgt. Shay Shackle, did not attend a meeting with crime lab employees and the assistant chief. He wanted employees to speak candidly about their concerns, he wrote.

"There will be apprehension to being open with sergeants present," Gravesen wrote. "They may have things that Shay and I are doing that could be improved but they won't say because of fear of retaliation. Just a thought."

The emails do not indicate whether Wuorinen addressed concerns about retaliation.

EMAILS WARN OF PROBLEMS

Two emails from employees warning of problems at the crime lab have been heavily redacted.

The first email was sent May 3, 2012 by Officer Jamie Sipes to Wuorinen, the assistant chief.

"During Monday meetings you extended an offer to crime lab employees to contact you with issues for one week. After which we should continue to follow our chain of command," Sipes wrote. "I would like to take advantage of your offer."

The next three paragraphs have been redacted.

The email continues, "I want to be an instrument for change as much as the other employees of the crime lab. I have seen a positive change in attitudes and a genuine excitement about the future. I don't want to be a part of our current dysfunction. You spoke of where we are. Where we are going and how we are going to get there. It is my sincere concern and observation that not all of us are on board with this plan."

Wuorinen replied to the email and offered encouragement. "Thank you for your insight," she wrote. "I appreciate it and do want to see change for the better in the lab."

The email includes a reference to an unexplained "issue."

Wuorinen writes, "We will get there, the ship doesn't change course in a day, but it will change course! (the issue was ten years in the making)."

Padilla, the police spokesperson, said he did not know what "issue" the email was referencing.

The assistant chief's email ends, "I wasn't kidding when I said those who don't jump on board will not be staying. I will keep tabs on things. I may check in with you from time to time."

PREPARING TO DEFEND THE CRIME LAB IN COURT

Many of the emails discussed preparation for the hearing in July in Dakota County District Court. The hearing, requested by public defenders, challenged the reliability of the crime lab's work and led police to shut down drug testing.

One of the complaints of the public defenders in July was that the crime lab favored prosecutors and did not grant equal access to information to both the prosecution and defense. They said Shackle, the head of the crime lab, did not answer many of their questions in the months leading up to the hearing.

Emails show Dakota County prosecutor Phil Prokopowicz urged Shackle to comply with requests from defense attorneys.

However, Shackle also offered his own advice to prosecutors. In May, Shackle emailed prosecutors to suggest how they might question crime lab employees who planned to testify on a drug case that month.

"Thinking about it last night, you may like to ask in rebuttal - 'would the results be any different if the evidence would have been tested at an accredited lab or private lab? No,'" Shackle wrote to Dakota County prosecutors.

There is no record of how prosecutors replied. Prokopowicz could not be reached for immediate comment.

As the July hearing approached, public defenders and prosecutors argued about how to proceed. Grannis, the Dakota County prosecutor, asked public defender Lauri Traub to provide more information about the problems in the lab.

This struck Traub, the defense attorney, as odd, she wrote, because Grannis took part in meetings with crime lab employees and defense attorneys about the lab's lack of standard written procedures. Grannis even took notes at the meetings and provided them to defense attorneys. The attorneys used the notes in July to help prove that the lab's employees did not understand basic scientific principles.

In one email, Traub challenged Grannis' claim that he did not have detailed information about the lab's failings. "With all due respect, you were at the same meetings I was at, and you took fabulous notes so you should know the issues with the SPPDCL," Traub wrote.

"The basic issue is the evidence derived from the SPPDCL is not scientifically reliable because they do not comply with appropriate standards and controls within the scientific community," she continued. "If you do not know what is acceptable in the scientific community for the relevant testing, or you choose to rely on the crime lab's representations that they follow appropriate standards and controls that is your decision to make, not mine."

The email was also sent to St. Paul Police Senior Commander Gregory Pye, who oversaw the crime lab, impound lot and property room.

There is no indication from the documents that Pye or any other senior police officials took any immediate steps to investigate the allegation that the crime lab did not comply with basic scientific standards. Pye did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The crime lab is being reviewed by two independent consultants hired by the city of St. Paul last year. A report detailing their recommendations will be released within the next few weeks.

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Follow Madeleine Baran on Twitter: http://twitter.com/madeleinebaran

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