St. Paul cops seek scientist to oversee troubled lab

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 14, 2013 - 9:11 PM

The requirements could indicate a move toward lab accreditation.

The St. Paul police department is looking for a forensic scientist to run its embattled crime lab, a major departure from relying on police sergeants to oversee its operations.

The job description requires that the candidate have seven years of experience working in an accredited lab, an indication that the lab itself could be headed toward accreditation, a stringent process that involves thorough testing and periodic vetting of staff skills and practices by an outside agency.

The lab currently is not accredited, and police officers who previously oversaw it had little or no academic background in science.

"I think this is one of those things that is going to reflect the direction the lab is headed going into the future," said police spokesman Howie Padilla. "Our intent has been to explore accreditation and to see if that's the best thing we can do for our community and our department."

The crime lab came under intense scrutiny last year when public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk challenged the scientific validity of its work and practices in Dakota County drug cases. Eight days of testimony spread out from July to October revealed a host of problems, including: No written documentation of testing procedures, no vetting of questionable test results, poor maintenance of testing instruments and no oversight of workplace practices.

A police sergeant has historically been installed as the lab's director, overseeing civilian criminalists with scientific training who tested suspected drugs. The hearing in Dakota County District Court only examined the lab's drug testing, not its latent print and crime scene work, which are carried out by the criminalists and officers.

Soon after testimony began, Chief Thomas Smith suspended all drug testing and replaced longtime crime lab director Sgt. Shay Shackle with a police commander. The chief and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman both called for a review and reorganization of lab leadership and exploration of accreditation.

The "Forensic Lab Manager" job, posted Jan. 11, describes general duties as: "Performs expert level professional forensic science work in managing the activities and staff of the Saint Paul Police Forensic Laboratory. Works with the police administration to develop strategic plans in the leadership of the forensics laboratory, directing personnel actions, and managing laboratory practices."

The job includes evaluating standards, defining procedural goals, managing the lab's budget and adhering to accreditation standards. It would pay a salary between $76,026 and $105,333, pending a vote by the City Council on Wednesday.

The candidate is also required to "possess and maintain" current certification from the American Board of Criminalists in drug analysis or from the International Association for Identification in latent print examination.

The job posting comes on the heels of consultations by two contractors hired last year to audit, review and revamp all aspects of the lab's work. Last month, the City Council approved a budget that included $1 million for the crime lab.

Padilla said the department would be releasing more information about the reviews and the crime lab's future in the coming weeks.

Traub and Funk initially sought to stop the lab's test results from being admitted as evidence. Prosecutors voluntarily dropped the lab's results, but the public defenders pushed on, asking Judge Kathryn Davis Messerich to prohibit test results from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).

The BCA tested evidence in the contested cases that were first handled by the police crime lab. Traub and Funk worry that evidence could have been contaminated at the police lab.

Messerich has until March to issue her decision.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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