AUSTIN (KXAN) — Two years – that’s how long Austin could be without its own DNA crime lab. That alarm came from an assistant police chief who came under fire from city public safety commissioners Monday. The grilling happened nearly eight months after the lab closed under scrutiny from the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
“What I really want to know is a sense of urgency prospectively,” asked Commissioner Mike Levy to Asst. Chief Troy Gay. “How are we going to fix this sucker and move it forward? Two years is unacceptable.”
Asst. Chief Gay told commissioners it will take until June or July for an outside consultant to dig into why the lab failed. Then it could take up to another year to implement recommendations as well as hire and train new scientists.
After grilling Asst. Chief Gay for 45 minutes, commissioners unanimously voted to recommend city council find funds for a temporary solution within six months, a fix that could include paying qualified DNA scientists 150 percent above market rate to move to Austin from elsewhere in the U.S. or abroad.
Caseloads continue to tick upward as options narrow on where untested sexual assault kits and other DNA case evidence can be sent. One hundred and ninety-three cases remain waiting at the Austin DPS lab where technicians are dealing with their own backlog. Austin council members approved a inter local agreement to farm out test kits to a Dallas area lab, but it can only take 20 cases a month.
With 20-30 new sex assault kits along with 90-plus other DNA cases emerging monthly, it is becoming a challenging battle for APD and by extension victims of crime who have no guarantee of swift justice.
Backlogged sex-related DNA cases now total 615 (up from December’s 600), with 488 of those made up of sex assault kits.
The Austin police lab was forced to shut its DNA testing and serology (blood testing) programs after state agency auditors discovered irregularities last May in how APD technicians were carrying out some testing. Ballistic and fingerprint testing continue.
Analysts remain on paid leave
Four of six DNA analysts remain on paid administrative leave after DPS questioned their qualifications. Also idled is a newly-hired chief forensic manager whose resume was re-examined after he got the job in Austin. One analyst is doing desk work elsewhere in the department, Gay said, while three other analysts are conducting inventory and other basic jobs at the lab, including preparing kits to be sent to private labs.
Chief Gay said the future of those four analysts and their new manager is uncertain right now with no date for the lab to reopen.
Two other analysts are wrapping up serology courses under the wing of the DPS Austin lab. They expect to begin testing some Austin blood evidence cases later this month, Chief Gay told commissioners. The hope is their work will eliminate the need for further DNA testing from as many as a third of the backlogged cases.
Chief Gay told commissioners they’ll see progress at Austin council’s Jan. 26 meeting where it’s expected APD will recommend the consultant be hired (no cost estimate has yet emerged to look at both the history of the beleaguered crime lab and how to fix it. Some commissioners joined the chorus of advocates calling for the Medical Examiner’s Office to take over the duties. Travis County would share the cost, it’s expected.
“They point to the M.E., they point to SWIFS [the Dallas County lab] they point to different labs, we hope to be one of the best labs in the country,” Gay told reporters after Monday’s intense meeting.
Meantime, APD continues to hold off on its own internal investigation choosing to wait for the consultant’s report to tell them who might have broken APD’s own policies. “It’s not black and white,” Gay told commissioners.