City officials plan to reopen the troubled Austin police DNA lab under an agreement in which the state will oversee the day-to-day operation of the now-shuttered facility, the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV learned Wednesday.
Under a proposed contract, the city of Austin will pay the Texas Department of Public Safety $800,000 a year to manage all aspects of the lab, including procedures for analyzing forensic evidence and the oversight of employees hired by the DPS to work there.
The newly named Department of Public Safety Capital Area Regional Lab will focus exclusively on Austin police cases, Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said.
“Right now, we have a multimillion-dollar lab that is not being used, and this contract will allow the facility, which has remained vacant and underutilized, to be fully functional,” Gay said. Austin police will have “no management and oversight responsibilities,” he said.
The proposed deal is uncommon for DNA testing. Although the DPS routinely provides forensics testing for police departments when it is asked by local investigators, it is rare for it to take over operations of a city’s lab.
The effort to resurrect the lab is a significant step for a facility that has faced intense state scrutiny since last summer, triggering questions about the quality of evidence testing and potentially jeopardizing major criminal cases.
Austin police officials in June closed the lab after the Texas Forensic Science Commission cited a lack of properly trained staff and said workers were using incorrect methods when they examined DNA samples — frequently key evidence in violent crimes such as homicides and sexual assaults.
The issues raised concerns about how well Austin police had operated the facility and led to calls by some in the criminal justice community for the lab to be run by a private operator.
Gay said the contract with the DPS will allow police to continue analyzing DNA samples as city and county leaders determine the most suitable path forward — a process he said could take several months while cases sit untested or wait to be funneled to a private lab.
Austin police have been working with DPS officials since the summer, beginning with an effort that initially focused on additional training for Austin police staff to get the lab running again. However, DPS officials in December said they had lost faith in most of Austin’s DNA lab employees and agreed to only continue training a couple of them at the state lab in North Austin.
Gay said under the deal, the lab would employ about nine staffers, some of whom might already work for the DPS. A few Austin police staffers who worked in the lab until it closed last year and have since been shifted to other jobs in the department might return.
Police said the current proposal would allow Austin police to address what has been a significant backlog of cases sitting on lab shelves awaiting analysis. As of this week, Gay said the Police Department has 2,535 cases awaiting DNA testing, 1,686 of which are from reported sexual assaults.
The department has already contracted — or plans to contract — with three private labs that have agreed to test Austin police DNA evidence.
Gay said that, with those private labs working in conjunction with the DPS-operated Austin police facility, officials hope to have testing on all cases performed by April 2018, “which is very aggressive.”
The proposed agreement is scheduled to go to the Austin City Council on March 23. Gay spent much of Wednesday briefing council members about the proposed DPS contract.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore sent a letter to council members urging them to approve the agreement.
“Although this interim solution will not eliminate the need for outsourcing to private labs, it will help to alleviate some of the serious capacity issues that are making it difficult to have DNA testing of evidence in pending cases and investigations completed in a timely manner,” Moore wrote.
The council will also vote on an agreement between the city and county for a national expert to be paid up to $850,000 for two years to review possible missteps in the Austin police crime lab that led to the issues found by the state.
Meanwhile, Travis County prosecutors have alerted defendants in 2,200 cases that their cases might be eligible to be reviewed as a result of possible improper testing at the facility.