Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek is battling a move by the County Board to take control of the crime lab and potentially merge it with that of the Minneapolis Police Department.
The proposal, submitted by Commissioners Marion Greene and Linda Higgins, is scheduled for a vote Wednesday as part of the board’s final tweaking of the 2018 budget. Since he learned about it last week, Stanek has waged an intense lobbying effort with police chiefs, mayors and city managers to defeat the action.
“There was no due process with the stakeholders,” Stanek said in an interview Tuesday. “The board is hoping to do this with no light being shed on it. I am irritated.”
If the board approves the measure, the crime lab would be run by a new department set up by county administration in less than a month. Greene said that the national trend is to separate crime labs from both law enforcement officials and prosecutors, much like Hennepin County’s nationally recognized medical examiner’s office is managed.
Moreover, she said, with Minneapolis planning to move its crime lab to a new building and the county medical examiner leaving the downtown facility it shares with the county crime lab, it made sense to consider combining the city and county labs.
“Voters want their elected leadership to find ways to take government services to the next level and to spend their tax dollars wisely,” Greene said. “This is one of those opportunities.”
But in a letter to city officials and police administrators, Stanek said that a joint lab would increase response times to crime scenes for rapes, robberies, murders and burglaries, and also result in longer turnaround times for evidence processing.
“All of which may jeopardize public safety for your residents,” he wrote. “Without our input, this move should be seen as a violation of the public trust.”
Separate for decades
The Sheriff’s Office and Minneapolis police have operated separate crime labs for decades. Both handle the same evidence processes, except that the Sheriff’s Office does its own DNA testing and Minneapolis uses chemistry testing.
“A key example is our priority work in processing property crime DNA, which has been key to the 25 percent reduction in violent crime across the county since 2006,” Stanek wrote.
Studies looking at the possibility of a shared city-county crime lab were conducted in 2010 and 2016. The most recent study, which included participation from Stanek and other current stakeholders, concluded that combining the labs would be the most cost-effective way to operate and also keep up with emerging national best practices.
Greene said that no conversations have been held regarding space for the crime lab, and she said it could stay where it is. County Administrator David Hough said there was no intention of moving the crime lab from its current home at Park Avenue and 6th Street S., near U.S. Bank Stadium.
Stanek said he’s not opposed to merging the crime labs but that the process needs far more time than what’s been proposed by Greene. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said he looked forward to continued communication and new information on how a crime lab merger would “impact the work we do.”
Greene was simply trying follow the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendation that crime labs have independent oversight, said Mary Moriarty, the county’s chief public defender. That recommendation came after a rash of crime lab scandals and wrongful convictions based on faulty forensics, she said.
“I know the sheriff said in his letter this would jeopardize public safety, but it’s the opposite in my mind,” Moriarty said. “Enhanced labs would follow valid scientific principles for processing evidence.”
Another reason for independent oversight is that law enforcement officials share information that could bias forensic examiners, she said.
Worry over merger impact
Stanek’s position has the support of many of the county’s police chiefs, including Bloomington Chief Jeff Potts. The Bloomington City Council is on record opposing the proposal, and Potts said he’s very satisfied with the county lab’s response time. He added that he wasn’t happy hearing about Greene’s proposal only Friday and that he might be expected to provide some input just days before the board vote.
Stanek argued that 80 percent of the crime labs in the United States have law enforcement oversight. The board has approved millions of dollars in federal grants to improve the lab’s technology, “and now they want to undo all that,” he said.
Stanek also speculated that politics may be at play since the football team that plays next door — the Minnesota Vikings — might be interested in buying the crime lab property. Merging the labs would expedite that sale.
“This amendment wasn’t even proposed during the regular part of the budget talks,” he said. “So you have to question why it’s being added now.”