Perry Township Police Chief Michael T. Pomesky said Tuesday that the Stark County Police Chiefs Association voted unanimously to send DNA cases to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which will provide the services for free, rather than to the Canton-Stark County Crime Lab due to the local crime lab’s severe case backlog.
A police officer who finds a trace of blood inside a burglarized shed today could wait more than a year for the local crime lab to process and return the DNA test results.
If the officer used the state’s crime lab, the results could be back within 20 days.
Perry Township Police Chief Michael T. Pomesky used the example Tuesday to explain why Stark County law enforcement agencies will begin sending their DNA evidence to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which will provide the services for free, rather than to the Canton-Stark County Crime Lab.
Pomesky, president of the Stark County Police Chiefs Association, told the 11-member executive committee of the Stark Council of Governments that local law enforcement agencies still support the Canton-Stark County Crime Lab, but its case backlog is too severe and its future operations are too uncertain to ignore.
“In the interest of serving our communities, it looks most viable for us to send (the DNA cases) to BCI until those are addressed,” Pomesky said.
He said the decision to use the state lab for its DNA evidence, at least temporarily, was unanimous among the police chiefs at the association’s May 10 meeting.
He said the chiefs will meet again Thursday to discuss how to begin the transition and how they can work together to reduce the costs to transport evidence to BCI’s Richfield facility, which is 40 miles away. Agencies still will continue to use the crime lab for other needs, such as drug and alcohol tests.
The Police Chiefs Association’s decision is another setback for the taxpayer-supported Canton-Stark County Crime Lab, which has seen four different directors in the past 19 months.
The turmoil began when the crime lab’s longtime director, Robert Budgake, lost his job in January 2012 after Canton City officials learned that he and about 30 other employees had retired to collect a pension but had not been properly rehired. In February, Director Rick Perez resigned a week after he was hired due to public backlash over the process Canton used to hire him.
At the same time, one of the lab’s criminalist was fired for falsifying documents, another employee left and a forensic scientist recently has agreed to take a job with BCI — which will leave the crime lab without the DNA technical leader it needs to be certified to do DNA testing.
Still, Michele Foster, a 25-year crime lab employee who took over as the interim director following Perez’ resignation, said officials cannot simply suspend the crime lab’s DNA division. She said it maintains an active DNA database that is still used for the prosecution of cases and those cases could be hindered if the database isn’t preserved.
Page 2 of 3 - Instead, she asked SCOG officials to restaff the crime lab by hiring a DNA technical leader, which must have a master’s degree and takes at least a year to train, and another scientist. She said the crime lab could contract with an off-site technical leader in the meantime to retain its certification.
“The idea of mothballing (the crime lab) is not, in my opinion, a realistic approach,” Foster said.
She noted that the DNA division had been making progress in reducing its backlog until Budgake’s firing. The lab’s current turnaround time is 420 days.
Jennifer Fitzsimmons, Canton’s chief assistant prosecutor, also expressed concern that the state would not be as receptive to local prosecutor’s constant calls and their needs to meet statutory guidelines.
“Our fear is if (the work) was taken out of their hands, we may have problems prosecuting cases,” she said.
Left unresolved Tuesday was how SCOG will address the crime lab’s current backlog of cases and what to do about its future.
Stark County’s 37 communities, which comprise SCOG, currently fund the crime lab through a portion of the local government funds they annually receive from the state. Since 2011, the state has cut that pot by 46 percent, and SCOG’s share has dropped from $1.4 million to $765,789. It costs roughly $1 million to operate the crime lab.
Budget figures presented Tuesday show that SCOG has enough money to cover the crime lab’s operations this year and the first six months of 2014. After that, Administrator Don Archer said SCOG will have exhausted all of its reserves.
Officials also learned Tuesday that the crime lab will not receive a $100,000 DNA testing grant it has relied on for at least three years. Foster said she designated the federal grant to go to the Mansfield Police Department, which has a crime lab, so it could handle the Canton-Stark County cases that BCI may not accept. Foster said she was facing a last-minute deadline and feared the crime lab would lose the grant altogether.
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Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation
What it is: Under the authority of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, BCI is the state’s crime lab that provides free forensic analysis and investigation as well as crime scene processing for all law enforcement agencies within Ohio.
Budget: $18.9 million — a 38 percent increase compared to 2011. The boost allowed the lab to decrease its evidence turnaround time by hiring including 21 additional scientists and doubling the amount of robotic testing equipment it owns.
Page 3 of 3 - DNA casework turnaround: 19.75 days. High priority cases, such as a serial rapist, DNA tests can be completed in 72 hours. In 2010, BCI’s turnaround time was 126 days.
Canton-Stark County Crime Lab
What it is: Under the appointing authority of Canton City, the crime lab provides free forensic analysis and crime scene processing to all government entities and law enforcement agencies in Stark County.
Budget: $1 million. — a 10 percent decrease compared to 2011. The Stark Council of Governments, which owns nearly all of the crime lab’s equipment, reimburses Canton City for the crime lab’s operations costs using money from the state’s allocation of local government funds.
DNA casework turnaround: 420 days. Testing for violent offenses is completed in an average of 255 days.