Austin City Council to vote Thursday on creating forensics lab independent from APD

Austin
Downtown Austin skyline April 30, 2020 (KXAN Photo/Kristen Currie)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin City Council is expected to vote this week on whether to create a separate forensics lab to operate independently from the Austin Police Department.

The proposal includes moving $11,908,897 from the police department’s budget to into a new Forensic Science Department — to be overseen by Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk.

If approved, it would also transfer out 86.75 full-time positions from APD, which would be non-sworn employees, to the Forensic Science Department.

As laid out in the recommendation, it would be responsible for:

  • crime scene investigation
  • evidence management
  • firearm/toolmark examination
  • drug analysis
  • toxicological analysis
  • latent print examination
  • DNA analysis
  • other related forensic services

During Tuesday’s work session, Council Member Greg Casar discussed introducing an amendment that would make it clear in the ordinance that “high-quality science, independence and following justice wherever it may lead are core to the mission of the new department.”

In June 2020, city council directed Cronk to explore options to reallocate positions and roles from the police department.

A main role of the forensic lab would also involve processing DNA results from rape kits, which in the past have been backlogged, delaying the judicial process for many.

The number of cases on hold grew to more than 4,000 in 2016 after APD’s DNA lab closed abruptly.

The police department announced at the time they were doing their own review of the DNA lab after a report from the Texas Forensic Science Commission said there was a DNA result mix-up — prompting APD to question how many other cases could potentially be affected.

APD used $500,000 in their budget, $200,000 from a grant, to clear that backlog.

The police department announced in 2019 they would potentially be reopening dozens of rape investigations after they finally received results from more than 2,500 rape kits.

The SAFE Alliance, which helps with sexual assault victim advocacy, said it supports the proposal to make a lab independent of law enforcement, saying that victims of rape and sexual assault will be better served.

The organization released this statement to KXAN:

“The SAFE Alliance has a particular interest in ensuring a process to receive, analyze, report on, and store DNA evidence collected during forensic exams conducted for survivors of sexual assault at Eloise House, SAFE’s forensic exam clinic. Over the past two years, SAFE participated in a rigorous review of the DNA lab with the goal of understanding past problems, including review of expert assessments, and then to identify the best practices in the operation of a DNA lab. The review was led by the City of Austin and Travis County and included a broad group of stake holders.”

The item is expected to be put to a vote on Thursday, Feb. 4.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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