A recent dip in demand for fingerprint testing has turned out to be a saving grace at Tri County Regional Forensic Laboratory in Andover.

It's allowed lab Director Scott Ford to shift a scientist from latent prints to biology, where there's been a sharp influx in case submissions, especially in DNA testing. So far this year, the lab has fielded 720 new biology cases — up more than 30 percent over last year. Criminal sexual conduct case submissions have also more than doubled.

The lab, a joint venture of Anoka, Sherburne and Wright counties, is hiring a fourth forensic scientist to help tackle the growing demand for testing. It's one of only four crime labs in the state accredited in biology. The others are the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) labs in Bemidji and St. Paul and the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office Crime Lab.

And unlike the BCA, which services the entire state, Tri County currently has no formal limits on what it will test for DNA in the three counties that fund its $1.7 million budget.

"As of right now, we are pretty much testing everything," Ford said. That includes samples swabbed from rocks thrown through windows, bottles of pop left in stolen cars and drug packaging. "If you can think it, we've probably tested it," he said.

That policy may have to change if submissions continue to climb.

The dilemma in Andover is part of a national hike in DNA test requests across all categories of crime, from homicide to sexual assault to theft. Lab directors and police say improving technology and quicker turnaround times may account for the increase.

"It used to take many weeks to get analysis done, and now you can do certain samples in days," said Jean Stover, executive director of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. Stover worked in the Illinois crime lab system for 32 years.

As submissions pile up, labs are looking to a growing number of federal programs aimed to help resources keep pace with demand.

The National Institute of Justice, for example, launched a program earlier this year exclusively focused on tracking and reporting the status of sexual assault kits — an issue that has drawn national attention. In Minnesota, unprocessed rape kits sitting in evidence storage numbered in the thousands last year, according to a report from the BCA.

And in a separate program, the U.S. Department of Justice also divvied up $63 million this year to 132 state and local agencies to boost lab resources and tackle backlogs of untested DNA samples.

It's through that initiative, known as the DNA Capacity Enhancement and Backlog Reduction Program, that the Tri County Regional Lab got $150,000 to hire its new forensic scientist. The hope, Ford said, is to cut the DNA backlog time — about four months on average — in half.

The Tri County Lab isn't the only facility looking to increase its ranks due to surges in DNA submissions. The BCA secured state funding this year to hire eight more scientists, increasing the biology section workforce from 27 scientists to 35. As of last week, 677 DNA cases are awaiting testing at the BCA — 428 of them property crime cases.

Meanwhile, at the Tri County Regional Lab, a swelling DNA caseload may soon grow even more with the addition of a new partner. The Isanti County Board will vote in December whether to become a partner next year, said Sheriff Chris Caulk.

Currently, Isanti County relies on the BCA for testing. The idea, Caulk said, is to be able to submit more DNA samples, especially related to property crimes, that haven't met BCA testing criteria in the past.

Growing demand

When the Tri-County Regional Lab was created in 2008, direct access to property crime testing served as a primary goal. Since the lab became accredited in biology in 2014, more and more police departments have sought that service.

In Coon Rapids, officers have gone through training on how to swab for DNA evidence at crime scenes, sending in submissions even for misdemeanor crimes, said police Cpt. Jon Urquhart, who's in charge of investigations.

"Anytime we have DNA evidence we submit it," Urquhart said.

Police say successful investigations has driven demand.

Blaine police Lt. Dan Pelkey said being able to charge a suspect several years ago in a catalytic converter theft because of DNA testing underscored DNA's power to solve crimes.

"It sunk in," Pelkey said. "I was finally like, 'So this DNA stuff is real.' "

From burglaries to auto thefts, Blaine police are now "submitting everything" for testing, Pelkey said.

Some suspect it may only be a matter of time before the lab has to scale back on accepting all submissions. Violent crimes, police and lab officials say, would take priority over property crimes.

'Victims of our own success'

Future limits could include restricting the number of items submitted per case or setting a higher threshold for the amount of DNA that needs to be present for testing, said Ford, the lab director. But ultimately, he added, the decision would be up to the lab's advisory board.

Ford said he hopes the additional forensic scientist will buy the Tri County lab more time. Once the new hire begins early next year, a scientist temporarily helping out in biology, as well as another currently being trained to pitch in, will return to their posts in latent prints.

"Eventually we will have to start limiting services or adding more staff and resources," Ford said. "We're kind of the victims of our own success."

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751