2009 grant proposal reveals St. Paul lab under stress

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG
  • Star Tribune
  • July 27, 2012 - 6:45 AM

St. Paul police, whose crime lab was brought under fire last week, admitted in a 2009 grant proposal that the lab had numerous equipment problems and challenges.

The revelation reinforced some critics' fears that the lab's failures may reach further than first thought.

While the recent focus has been on the lab's mismanagement of drug testing, the grant proposal, which focused on DNA and digital evidence and the need for more personnel, illustrates fundamental challenges in its day-to-day-operation. The document shows a lab under duress.

"The Saint Paul Police Dept. (SPPD) Crime Lab is seriously understaffed, with a very large and growing workload," read the grant proposal that lists former Police Chief John Harrington as the applicant.

"We work with slower, old equipment, one severely outdated and breakdown-prone lab vehicle, and equipment in need of repairs and upgrades to keep up the latest technology and techniques."

The department was turned down for the two-year, $1.67 million federal grant that would have paid for a full-time crime lab evidence coordinator to manage how evidence and information are moved between lab staff, police officers, prosecutors and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

That request is among some of the proposal's acknowledgements of systemic cracks that were seized upon when public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk recently challenged the lab's drug tests in Dakota County District Court.

Traub and Funk focused on evidence handling as a fundamental breakdown in credibility. Lab criminalists testified last week that multiple staffers had access to a drug vault, with no documentation of who entered it, when, or what might have been removed.

Testimony also revealed that the lab did not have written protocols for its testing process, peer review for questionable results or documentation of how tests were conducted.

Aware of standards

The grant proposal makes it clear the department was aware of standards set by professional organizations, including the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD), even as it continued to ignore basic scientific procedures, such as cleaning instruments between each test of suspected drugs.

"There is no time for research by staff as recommended by ASCLD and training opportunities are limited by workload staffing requirements," said the proposal.

Funk and Traub's cross-examination tackled the staff's lack of knowledge on professional standards. The testimony, which will continue in August and September, prompted law enforcement in Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties to turn to the BCA for their future testing. Police Chief Thomas Smith suspended his lab's drug testing shortly thereafter.

The lab's director was replaced last week, and major overhauls are expected. Pending and past cases will be reviewed by county attorneys and the public defender's office, with the full scope of what might happen still unclear.

Scientists from 3M Corp. were invited to the lab to help make recommendations used in the 2009 grant proposal. At the time, the lab employed six full-time staffers -- three sworn officers and three civilian criminalists -- and one part-time criminalist. When testimony began in July, that number had grown to eight full-time staff. The grant had requested the addition of nine new positions.

The 3M scientists recommended doubling the staff and adding, replacing or upgrading equipment.

Police spokesman Howie Padilla said that many of those improvements were made without the grant.

"Even without that grant money, the dedication to the lab is still there in the year-to-year budget," he said.

Are other areas affected?

Funk and Traub's challenges only involve drug cases, but defense attorneys have quietly wondered whether the lab's work in other areas is suspect.

"We're finding out now that we're operating in a world where we really don't know," said John Stuart, state public defender.

Stuart and chief public defenders met Wednesday to discuss reviewing past and pending cases that came out of the lab.

The public defenders also want to examine test results from the state's other unaccredited labs, about 20 statewide. Accreditation is voluntary, and little to no outside oversight is mandated by state law.

When asked Thursday whether he favored mandating accreditation of crime labs, Gov. Mark Dayton said he did.

"Any lab like that should be accredited, as are the BCA labs," Dayton said. "If they are going to make the determinations that affect people's lives and the guilt and innocence and the like, they need to perform to the highest possible standards, and the public and law enforcement community and everyone else needs to know they meet the highest standards."

Dayton said he would support legislation next year requiring it, although it's unclear if any legislators have taken on the cause.

Staff writer Rachel Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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