Canton-Stark County Crime Lab at a crossroads amid personnel changes and looming funding problems
The Canton-Stark County Crime Lab has stopped testing crime-scene evidence for DNA and likely will hand over the DNA profiles of 1,500 local criminals to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
Interim Director Michele Foster said this week that shutting down the lab’s DNA section is a major misstep, one that may be irreversible, if Stark’s criminal justice community ever can restore stability to the lab.
“This is a real mistake to piecemeal this lab and dissect it,” she told the board members who oversee the lab.
Losing the DNA division is the latest setback to the agency on which the criminal justice community depends to help solve crimes, in the year and a half since its longtime director was let go. Officials now are dealing with funding and personnel issues and even could change the organizational structure under which the lab falls.
Robert Budgake was fired in January 2012 as part of the city’s retire-rehire investigation. One criminalist has been fired and others have resigned voluntarily.
The lab’s funding continues to shrink, so much so that the lab will spend all of its $750,000 projected budget midway through 2014 if no changes are made. Foster also must ask for a one-year extension on the lab’s accreditation.
The decision to send DNA to BCI, a free service, is due to a backlog of cases. Foster says it’s typical for backlogs to exist at local labs. The local lab is one of a dozen in the state, not counting BCI.
The lab reduced its backlog in the two years prior to Budgake’s firing, but since then, it has grown. Interns are sifting through cases to see if any have been adjudicated.
In November 2011, the lab’s DNA turnaround time was about 100 days for violent offenses and 250 days for non-violent offenses. Now, turnaround times are 255 days for violent offenses and 418 days for nonviolent offenses. BCI processes DNA evidence in 20 days — an 84 percent reduction over two years in processing time. Unlike the local lab, BCI has limits on some types of DNA testing.
The Stark County Police Chiefs Association recently voted to use BCI for all DNA testing. Sheriff George T. Maier said BCI officials have agreed to manage the lab’s local DNA database. Maier also plans to use a van at the sheriff’s office to transport evidence to BCI’s office in Richfield.
The lab has been a convenient place for local law enforcement to submit evidence, and criminalists have been available to testify in court when called on, sometimes on the same day. Stark County Prosecutor John Ferrero said the lab still operates efficiently.
“All evidence we need to proceed on a case is always ready for us,” he said. “We have a good working relationship. If we need something brought to the forefront, Michele and her staff will get that for us. Don’t forget that.”
Page 2 of 3 - FUNDING
The Stark Council of Governments, a collaboration of 37 local governments, is funded by the state-issued Local Government Fund. Each community pays 9 percent of its share to SCOG. Canton and Stark County each pay about a third of the cost to operate the lab.
Since 2010, Local Government Funds have been slashed from $15 million to $8.5 million. As a result, SCOG cut the Stark County Metro Narcotics Unit, which has since been absorbed by the sheriff’s office.
The lab’s 2013 budget is $1,028,350. Marty Chapman, Minerva’s representative to SCOG’s executive committee, said the lab needs $1.3 million to operate, but in 2014, it will only have $750,000.
Budgake formed an advisory committee in 2011 to discuss funding. It considered asking voters for money or requesting a share of casino revenue. The group met twice, but never again after Budgake was fired.
On the other hand, BCI’s budget grew from $13.7 million in 2011 to $18.9 million last year, a nearly 38 percent increase, because Attorney General Mike DeWine reallocated money to the agency. Most of the new money was used to hire 49 new employees, including 24 scientists. It also reduced turnaround time for drug testing, firearm analysis and database entry.
County Commissioner Tom Bernabei, executive director of SCOG, said if the state is going to strip local governments of money needed to run the lab, it makes sense to send BCI the additional work, especially if it can process DNA faster.
“It’s an offset to me,” he said. “They’ve taken away the money that’s enabled us to operate a good crime lab through the Local Government Fund and they’ve thrown a ton of money at their own crime lab. We might as well reduce our workload and give it back to them.”
Bernabei has spoken to Ohio Rep. Kirk Schuring,
R-Jackson Township, about his proposed Local Government Bridge Fund, a $200 million fund to support local governments at risk of losing services due to state funding cuts. Schuring introduced House Bill 115 in April.
Stark County Common Pleas Judge Taryn Heath, chairwoman of the Stark County Corrections Planning Board, reached out to state lawmakers in late April to stress the importance of the lab.
“The integrity, efficacy and timeliness of the work performed by the crime lab are vital to the efficient operation of our criminal justice system,” she wrote to the representatives.
After being fired, Budgake warned SCOG that placing someone in charge who lacks the scientific credentials would hurt the lab’s credibility and productivity. Canton installed two ranking police officers as interim directors and then, in February, hired former Stark County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Rick Perez as the permanent director. Perez resigned after a week on the job because of push-back by SCOG members, who were angered the city hired him without their consent and lowered the job qualifications.
Page 3 of 3 - “I specifically warned them that it would be the demise of the laboratory,” Budgake said. “You just can’t run it with anybody.”
As director for 26 years, Budgake reviewed every report that left the lab. It was the “ultimate quality control,” he said. Foster, named interim director following Perez’s resignation, wrote in a February report that the DNA backlog was due to the lack of a permanent leader. She cited a “disruption in the lab structure.”
Criminalist Michael Short was placed on administrative leave last year, then fired and reinstated for failing to test firearms and falsifying documents. He was fired again this year after a more extensive investigation, but has appealed. During that time, the firearms and fingerprints section completed 47 percent fewer cases than in 2011.
Others left voluntarily. Come July, the lab will be down to four full-time employees, half of what it had before Budgake left. SCOG approved the hiring of a consultant last week to help with the workload.
“In light of the funding situation, how are we going to keep employees on staff?” said Foster, a 25-year employee of the lab. “Who’s going to come in knowing we might not have funding next year?”
The manpower issues have prevented the lab from undergoing its accreditation with the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board. An application was due to ASCLD/LAB at the end of 2012, but it was never submitted. Foster will ask for a one-year extension.
Bernabei believes the Perez dispute helped unearth many of the lab’s problems. Officials have had ongoing discussions about the future of the lab since.
Canton Safety-Service Director Warren Price said the current governance structure is “flawed.” While SCOG is the lab’s funding source, Canton oversees personnel, including the director, and day-to-day operations.
One idea is for SCOG to take over the lab entirely. A similar model exists with the Regional Emergency Dispatch Center in Jackson Township, which is operated by 26 communities through the Local Governments In Cooperation board. Canton Law Director Joseph Martuccio says SCOG would have to determine how to handle employee matters, such as salaries, benefits and discipline. Criminalists would no longer have civil-service protections.
Price says the city is open to change in the interest of preserving the lab.
“There needs to be a clear line of authority that’s inclusive and brings in all those other law enforcement agencies that pay for this lab,” said Price. “Canton clearly recognizes that. Moving forward, the door is open.”
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