St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman on Friday directed his police chief to hire more scientists, review training needs and consider accreditation for the department's troubled crime lab in the wake of a court challenge this week that revealed major lapses in procedure and halted narcotics testing.
"You and I both agree that the Saint Paul Police Department enjoys a hard-earned reputation as one of the best police departments in the nation, and in this case the crime lab has clearly not lived up to that standard," Coleman wrote in a letter Friday to Police Chief Thomas Smith.
Coleman lauded Smith's decision to replace the lab's 11-year director, Sgt. Shay Shackle, with Senior Cmdr. Colleen Luna, who heads the department's internal affairs division. He also backed Smith's decision to seek out experts to help the department review its current policies. The mayor also ordered a review of crime lab staff training needs and of the adequacy of testing equipment, analysis of staffing levels, and a review of certification and accreditation options.
Coleman's spokeswoman, Clarise Tushie-Lessard, said the mayor wants Smith to look into what the department can afford. Police spokesman Howie Padilla said the department will pursue long-term solutions once the department review is complete.
The issue came into focus this week when a Dakota County District Court case exposed widespread problems in the St. Paul police crime lab. Public defenders Lauri Traub and Christine Funk are challenging the lab's science in eight Dakota County cases, citing poor lab management, a lack of training, the absence of oversight and possible contamination of test results. A judge's decision is expected later this year, but the case already has Ramsey, Washington and Dakota county attorneys reviewing pending and past drug cases that came out of St. Paul's lab.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said his office was in the process of seeking continuances on affected cases in order to retest suspected drugs, but the public defender's office had opposed those requests. "This opposition to the requests to continue cases for further testing is contrary to previous agreements and understandings my office had reached with the public defender and communicated to the court," he said in a statement. "I can only assume that these objections ... are an attempt by the public defender to circumvent my office's previous agreements."
All three counties once relied on the lab to test narcotics evidence, but have since moved testing to the state crime laboratory.
The St. Paul lab, which also performs fingerprint and DNA collection, currently employs two sergeants, two officers and four civilians, all of whom are criminalists with bachelor's degrees in various sciences.
On Friday, St. Paul City Council Member Dan Bostrom, a retired St. Paul police sergeant, recalled major cuts in the lab dating back 30 years, when officers replaced scientists for budgetary reasons.
Bostrom said he hadn't heard of problems regarding the crime lab, so was surprised and disappointed to learn of this week's revelations.
"These things have a ripple effect on many, many cases," he said. "You just don't know where it's going to end up, is the problem."
Accreditation is virtually the only accountability forensic labs face. They largely operate under weak or nonexistent state and federal legislation.
Only five Minnesota labs are accredited, while about 20 others operate across the state with little accountability.
States including Texas, New York, Maryland, Oklahoma and Missouri require laboratories that present evidence in court to be accredited.
Brian Kasbohm, chair of the state's Forensic Laboratory Advisory Board, an unpaid panel formed in 2006 by the Legislature, said it has unsuccessfully lobbied legislators to require crime-lab accreditation.
"That is how the laboratories will demonstrate to the criminal justice system and the public that they do things correctly," he said. "If you're not demonstrating your competence through accreditation, how else are you doing it? I don't know of another way."
The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors accredits state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension labs in St. Paul and Bemidji, the Minneapolis police lab, the Hennepin County sheriff's lab and a lab at Target Corp. The organization accredits 388 U.S. labs and five internationally.
Cost can be a deterrent, Kasbohm said. He said it costs the Hennepin County sheriff's lab about $12,000 a year with a staff of 32. A ballpark figure for a lab St. Paul's size is $7,500 annually, he said. "It's not a dollar amount that a police department or sheriff's office can just say, 'Yeah, we'll absorb that,'" Kasbohm said. "Not in these budget times."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921