AUSTIN (KXAN) — With the passage of the FY23 budget, Austin’s forensics lab will become independent from Austin Police governance beginning Oct. 1.
“This is something that was supported on all sides,” said Mayor Pro Tem Allison Alter. “The Austin Police Association is in favor as well. It’s just good practice.”
The turmoil involving the lab began in 2016, when an audit found lab technicians used expired materials and flawed science while processing DNA, which may have botched thousands of cases. The lab closed and the police department contracted out forensics services through private companies as well as the Texas Department of Public Safety.
In July, the American Bar Association asked the Supreme Court to overturn the conviction of a capital murder and sex assault suspect whose DNA evidence was processed at the lab.
As part of the Reimagining Public Safety Initiative, city council voted in 2021 to move move $12 million out of the Austin Police Department’s budget in order to create an independent forensics lab. But because that move included taking funding from APD, it ended up retroactively violating a state law that went into effect. During the FY2023 budget talks, however, city council was able to move things around the balance making the lab a stand-alone operation with staying in compliance with that law.
To be clear, the new lab is already up and running, but APD still governs its operations. But the lab’s director, council members, APD, the Austin Police Association and the city manager’s office said giving the lab independence is crucial for victims and survivors. Once the next fiscal year starts on Oct. 1, the Forensic Science Department will be another public safety agency — just like the fire department or EMS.
“What I think a department like this does for victims and survivors, is it creates comfort and trust in the forensics services,” said Dr. Dana Kadavy, the department’s executive director. “It’s an extra layer of autonomy and independence. We’re a bunch of science nerds at the end of the day, we like certainty. So the fact that we’re in this place now and we have a date and a path, it’s exciting.”
Sex assault survivor Allison Franklin said being able to trust in the investigation process is crucial for anyone who has endured trauma.
“The ability to speak out and seek services and seek help takes a lot of courage,” she said. “So when you do that and the system fails you and your case doesn’t come to fruition, it’s just another slap in the face from a justice standpoint.”
The budget approval also included additional resources for APD’s sex crimes unit that stemmed from preliminary recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), which audited APD’s sex assault investigation practices.
“These services will help survivors obtain the healing and justice they deserve,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Alter, who was instrumental in pushing the items forward.
Those measure include, but are not limited to, the following:
- A dedicated crime analyst for the Sex Crimes Unit
- Continued annual reviews of sex assault cases
- Additional vehicles for the Sex Crimes Unit and victim Services Division
“Really important if we want to change how we respond to sexual assault and become leaders in how we respond to it,” said Alter.