Austin police give up on DNA lab, demote new leader as problems swirl


Highlights

Austin lab director hired in late November — at salary of $111,000 — demoted over concerns with academic record.

Change of course comes as Police Department tries to get grasp on a problem that has festered for months.

Austin’s police chief apologized Friday for massive problems at the Police Department’s crime lab, saying he had ceased all efforts to reopen the DNA part of the troubled facility and had removed the man recently hired to get it back on track.

Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said at a news conference that the department has let down taxpayers and the criminal justice community. DNA and blood samples will continue to be sent to a Texas Department of Public Safety lab for analysis, he said.

The department’s lab might reopen at some point, Manley said. But for now, the agency needs to work with the city to figure out what went wrong and how to move forward, he said. Other parts of the crime lab — including ballistics, chemistry and fingerprints — remain open.

“I apologize to the community and to our partners in the criminal justice system that we’re in the position where we are today,” Manley said. “I’m proud of the Austin Police Department. We are a leading agency across many fronts, but we have failed in the area that’s under question now.”

The change of course comes as the department tries to get a grasp on a problem that has festered for months and grown worse over the past few weeks. The DPS, which has been retraining six crime lab employees, told the Police Department on Monday that it had lost confidence in four of the lab analysts and refused to continue working with them.

Until Friday, the Police Department had repeatedly said that it planned to reopen the DNA and serology portions of the lab as soon as possible. The department had planned to hire new analysts and a supervisor to increase the capacity of the lab, but it will no longer do that.

Instead, the two scientists whom DPS has agreed to keep working with will continue their training at the state lab. The Police Department will figure out what to do with them once that training is complete, Manley said.

The department also did an about-face on who will run the lab. Scott Milne, from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, was recently hired to work on overhauling the DNA and serology sections while simultaneously running the other parts of the Austin lab.

But shortly after the Police Department hired Milne in late November at a salary of $111,000 — he had gone through interviews and met minimum requirements — numerous people had questioned Milne’s qualifications, Manley said. The chief pulled Milne’s college transcripts and said he felt that he hadn’t performed “at the academic level that I would want to see in someone who’s going to run the crime lab functions that remain open for our community.”

A Police Department spokesman said Milne wasn’t available for comment. He is still a Police Department employee, but his future role in the agency hasn’t yet been decided, Manley said.

News of the DNA lab’s at least temporary demise was met with support throughout the criminal justice community. Travis County District Attorney-elect Margaret Moore said she thinks Manley’s apology “showed a lot of class.”

“I do feel very confident that we are all going to be working together to reach a good solution and that our need to analyze our DNA appropriately will be reached,” she said.

Trudy Strassburger with the Capital Area Private Defender Service — which wants to conduct post-conviction reviews of all the cases stemming from the DNA lab — said the pause on reopening the lab is “a recognition of how serious the problems at the DNA lab were.”

The crime lab opened in 2004. Its DNA analysis section was shuttered in June after the Texas Forensic Science Commission warned the agency it was using flawed methods to analyze its samples. The state agency also said employees weren’t properly trained and that the lab’s leaders refused to acknowledge their mistakes.

The 400-page report raised numerous questions about the quality of the lab’s work and drew attention to at least one case in which the police targeted the wrong suspect in a sexual assault, in part because of faulty DNA analysis.

Travis County and the city of Austin might be forced to spend as much as $14 million to review thousands of DNA samples from the lab — an unexpected cost so high it could result in a significant rate hike to taxpayers.

Officials are still trying to estimate how much it will take to ensure that faulty lab work hasn’t resulted in wrongful convictions and that forensic analysis in pending cases is accurate.

Since it opened, the lab has been through numerous audits by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors and is accredited through that group. None of those reviews flagged any of the current problems, Manley said. That has started a discussion in the scientific community about how this could have happened when the lab was accredited, Manley said.

— Staff writers Katie Hall and Philip Jankowski contributed to this report.



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