New St. Paul police crime lab chief says quality is top priority

  • Article by: NICOLE NORFLEET , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2013 - 6:18 AM

Civilian optimistic about St. Paul’s troubled crime lab.

Rosanna Caswell
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Rosanna Caswell

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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As the new civilian manager of the St. Paul Police Department crime lab, Rosanna Caswell pledges to bring a new focus on quality and training to the beleaguered operation.

Independent audits of the lab released in February pointed out widespread failings ranging from poorly maintained testing instruments to problems with staff skills. The lab came under review last year after a pair of public defenders contested its scientific credibility in several Dakota County drug cases, which led to legal challenges and the city’s pouring $1 million into major changes and renovations.

Those days are past, proclaimed Caswell, 41, who arrived in Minnesota two weeks ago after more than a decade working for the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

She said St. Paul’s recent investments to improve the lab so it meets professional standards has put the evidence testing facility “on a really good footing to move forward.”

Her goal is to officially apply for accreditation by the end of the year, a step she calls critical to the lab’s progress. “We’re going to set some high standards for our lab,” she said Thursday afternoon at police headquarters.

In past years, the lab had analyzed suspected drug evidence from crime scenes in Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties. In the wake of the audits, the lab suspended drug testing and transferred that work to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension lab. It continues to do other testing, including examining latent fingerprints, another area in which recent reviews faulted the lab’s performance.

Caswell is a certified latent print examiner and received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Arizona State University. Before becoming the crime lab’s new manager, she worked at consulting firm Ideal Innovations as a senior latent print examiner. Her duties included processing and comparing latent prints, reviewing work of other latent print examiners, training and writing standard operating procedures.

She started her career in 1995 as an analyst with Fiberquant Analytical Services. In 1999, she started at the Arizona Department of Public Safety as an associate criminalist and for the next 11 years worked her way up as criminalist in the department’s accredited lab, where she processed crime scenes, worked with latent prints and testified in court proceedings as well as other tasks.

“I am somebody who is extremely high on quality,” she said. “And so that followed me through DPS. They were big on quality and making sure that everything was done properly, and my last job I was in quality assurance, so again I was really focusing on quality.”

She said she wants to bring the same sort of commitment to quality to St. Paul. Emphasis will be put on training the lab’s staff, Caswell said.

Lab staffers now training through the help of consultants will be tested before they work on evidence of their own, Caswell said. Continuing education and training would also be encouraged, such as routine classes for latent print examiners that focus on palm prints. She also wanted to encourage the staff to attend professional conferences.

“They are all on board and eager to learn,” Caswell said. “I really want to take advantage of that.”

Caswell first heard of the lab opening from a friend who was working with the city as one of the consultants.

“I saw that they had posted it online, and I thought, ‘I would be the perfect person for that. I would be able to get them up to the standards that they need to meet accreditation,’ ” she said.

Not everybody is yet on board with a civilian in the job.

The St. Paul Police Federation has maintained that a civilian in the forensic lab manager post violates the federation’s terms and conditions of employment. A police sergeant has historically overseen the lab.

Consultants, however, recommended hiring a scientist to manage the lab.

“It’s just a different background that I have versus an officer,” Caswell said. “I know what the challenges are that are coming up in the court systems, and I want to make sure that we meet those standards.”

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