It is a potent crime-fighting tool that can unmask perpetrators and unlock cold cases.

Now, law-enforcement agencies in Anoka, Sherburne and Wright counties will have some of the most direct access to DNA analysis and other forensic testing in the state.

The Tri County Regional Forensic Laboratory in the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office earned its international accreditation in July, which allows scientists there to now work on a full assortment of cases.

The accreditation by the Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board clears the way for the lab to connect to the FBI’s DNA index computers, which include millions of searchable DNA profiles. It also meets a state law requiring accreditation or started the process by 2015.

The tri-county lab is only the fourth lab in the state to be accredited in biology, including DNA testing. The others are the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s labs in St. Paul and Bemidji and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Crime Lab.

The tri-county lab is also accredited in drug chemistry, toxicology and finger printing technology.

“It took us two years, a lot of hard work and diligence to get through it,” said laboratory director Scott Ford, describing the process.

A group of scientists from across the country visited the lab for nearly a week this spring.

“They go through everything we do with a fine-tooth comb and make sure we are following our own standards and procedures,” Ford said.

The tri-county lab was created in 2008, but DNA testing only started in 2013. Last year, the lab tested evidence in 1,000 drug cases, 300 cases involving latent prints and more than 100 select cases involving DNA. The DNA testing will increase dramatically now with the accreditation.

The tri-county lab’s annual budget is $1.5 million. It employs 14 people, mostly full-time scientists.

Until this point, Anoka County law enforcement, like a majority of agencies in the state, relied on the BCA labs and their policies and priorities.

Having an in-house lab will give the sheriffs from these three counties more control over what gets tested.

Ford said that crimes against people are the highest priority, but that they’re also focusing on finding DNA at scenes of property crimes, including burglaries, auto thefts and vandalism.

Officers can collect and test bottles, cigarette butts, clothing — anything that may contain a suspect’s skin cells, saliva or other body fluids. Officers also swab steering wheels, gear shifts, window panes, even refrigerators.

“A lot of burglars go into a home and they go through the fridge,” said Megan Palmer, forensic scientist in the DNA section. She recalled one burglary case in another county in which a suspect’s DNA was extracted from a half-eaten frozen corn dog.

Palmer and other scientists say there is better communication and rapport with officers at the smaller lab.

Palmer said she tries to attend deputy meetings three times a month to answer questions and give tips. She recently reminded deputies of the best way to store evidence that has potential DNA.

“I feel they [officers] are more comfortable asking questions,” Palmer said. “Before they felt a disconnect if they didn’t understand a report.”

“There is a lot more communication going on,” Ford said.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804