Austin police hand over keys of troubled DNA lab to state


Agreement would pay the DPS $800,000 a year to manage lab, provide some DNA analysts.

Officials hope to have DNA testing complete on 2,500 backlogged cases by April 2018.

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.

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

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.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Austin activists fight police union’s attempt to block access to law enforcement records
Austin activists fight police union’s attempt to block access to law enforcement records

An Austin activist group said it will argue for the dismissal of a lawsuit that seeks to keep Austin police records and investigation out of civilian oversight. In February, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, a union that represents police officers across the state, filed a temporary injunction on behalf of the Austin police...
Parts of I-35 to close in parts of Travis, Williamson counties over next several days
Parts of I-35 to close in parts of Travis, Williamson counties over next several days

Crews will temporarily close parts of Interstate 35 at three different locations over the next several days: at William Cannon Drive in Travis County, at 51st Street in Travis County, and at FM 3406 (Old Settlers Boulevard) in Williamson County. The closures at FM 3406 as well as at William Cannon will occur overnight Friday and overnight Saturday...
Pflugerville residents hold candlelight vigil for bombing victims
Pflugerville residents hold candlelight vigil for bombing victims

Around 250 people gathered Friday night for a candlelight vigil in Pflugerville to honor and offer up prayers for the families affected by the bombings in Austin. The vigil was held in the lawn of First Baptist Church at 306 10th Street. Tom Cottar, a worship leader at the church, said he wanted to help bring unity to the families in Travis County...
TRAFFIC ALERT: Crash reported on northbound I-35 in South Austin
TRAFFIC ALERT: Crash reported on northbound I-35 in South Austin

Interstate 35 has reopened after a crash temporarily shut down three northbound lanes of traffic, at a location between Woodward and Oltorf streets, in South Austin, police said. Expect residual delays.
JUST IN: Lawsuit alleges state hospital employees abused patients 
JUST IN: Lawsuit alleges state hospital employees abused patients 

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, a former employee for a state hospital outside Dallas is alleging he witnessed employees abusing patients while he was there and that he was fired for reporting what he saw. Ethan Vestal worked as a psychiatric nursing assistant at Terrell State Hospital from July to December last year, his suit says.  During that...
More Stories