Suburban Ramsey County police chiefs lobbied many years for a mobile unit that could swiftly respond to crime scenes and process evidence with expertise, just like the one their neighbors in Hennepin County relied on for decades.

Late last year, discussions with the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office finally produced a "crime scene processing unit" slated to get off the ground in a few months.

The Sheriff's Office will retrofit one of its sport-utility vehicles at a cost of about $10,000 with digital cameras, lights and other equipment that will enhance evidence collection.

Up to 24 deputies and suburban officers will receive special training in evidence gathering to work with the unit.

"I've been here for 24 years, and we've needed it for 24 years," said Roseville Police Chief Rick Mathwig. "It bridges the gap for Ramsey County."

The initiative is not related to ongoing courtroom challenges to the St. Paul police crime lab's credibility, authorities said.

Better evidence gathering

Suburban police departments rely on the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) to process major crime scenes such as murders and suspicious deaths. But individual departments handle other crimes that require expertise, including assaults, property crimes and burglaries.

That isn't ideal because different departments rely on individual practices instead of standardized methods, and because some crime scenes can get unwieldy, the chiefs said.

"There was an area in between where we thought we could do a better job," said St. Anthony Police Chief John Ohl. "What we're looking for in Ramsey County is to increase the quality and protect the integrity of the evidence we collect at these crime scenes.

"It's not like we were losing evidence before, but we'll just be more comprehensive in our evidence gathering."

Hennepin County the leader

Although specifics on the unit's capabilities and tools were not immediately available, in its basic form it'll look and operate much like the Hennepin County Sheriff's four mobile crime scene units, also modified SUVs. Hennepin County also has one larger vehicle for major crimes.

The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office has processed crime scenes for its suburban partners, now numbering 45, since the 1970s. The arrangement relieves pressure on suburban departments that don't have the manpower and knowledge to handle such scenes, said Hennepin County Sheriff's Sgt. Shane Magnuson.

"A large portion of it is, they're able to focus on their primary duties," Magnuson said. "We're the specialist."

The around-the-clock units and staff are accredited by an outside agency, a step Ramsey County will consider but is not wedded to at the moment, said Ramsey County Sheriff's Chief Deputy John Kirkwood.

The Hennepin County Sheriff's units, which respond to about 3,400 scenes annually, are equipped for on-site analysis of blood splatter, blood stains and bullet trajectory.

Ramsey County's unit will not be equipped to conduct any tests or analysis of evidence onboard. Evidence will still be sent to the county's crime lab or the BCA for testing.

However, Ohl said, the unit and the officers' specialized training will help improve the collection of DNA and fingerprints, among other evidence.

"Hopefully, the result of that will be to clear more cases, identify more bad guys," he said.

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