The St. Paul City Council agreed Wednesday to give the Police Department's troubled crime lab $1 million in already budgeted funds to hire new personnel and move toward accreditation.
The decision marks the city's commitment to correct the problems discovered with the lab last year, when two public defenders challenged its work in drug cases and subsequent testimony revealed issues with written documentation, review of test results and lack of oversight.
The $1 million -- which had been held in contingency in the 2013 budget -- is the first step toward a vastly expanded annual crime lab budget of $1.5 million, nearly double the $800,000 spent on the crime lab last year.
That doesn't include a one-time upgrade in equipment and lab space costing $451,000.
But council members said they didn't see where they had much choice. Without a crime lab, the police would have to farm the work out to other departments, which would slow investigations.
"The alternative is not acceptable," Council Member Chris Tolbert said.
Asst. Chief Bill Martinez and Sgt. Trish Englund told the council that the reconstituted crime lab would focus on fingerprinting and crime scene work. Drug testing will be done at the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension lab, where two scientists will be funded by St. Paul to give the city's cases priority.
Among the new hires would be a lab director certified in chemistry or crime scene processing and a certified forensic scientist, they said.
Martinez said consultants brought in to analyze the crime lab's structure recommended that the police keep fingerprint analysis in-house to reduce turnaround time and outsource drug testing to the BCA because it has better equipment.
"I'd say we're spending an awful lot of money just to do fingerprinting," said Council Member Dave Thune, who was told the plan included crime scene processing and the cost of the two BCA scientists.
Englund said the consultants had recommended that the crime lab establish a training program. To ensure more stability and reduce turnover, she said the Police Department would ask officers assigned to the crime lab for a minimum commitment of five years.
"We're making no plans to transfer people randomly in and out of the crime lab," she said.
They said the goal is to have the crime lab accredited by this time next year in crime scene processing and response and fingerprinting.
In a statement, Mayor Chris Coleman -- who had proposed holding the additional $1 million for the crime lab in this year's budget -- applauded the council's action.
"After taking a long, hard look at the issues surrounding the St. Paul crime lab, the St. Paul Police Department now has a plan to move forward," he said. "The action by the City Council today is a smart investment that places key components of the crime lab on the road to accreditation."
Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035