City, county may pay SBI for quicker lab work

Jan. 11, 2013 @ 06:19 PM

Rather than building their own crime lab, local officials increasingly see the solution to evidence-testing backlogs as paying the state each year to hire technicians to work only on Durham cases.

On Friday the Durham Crime Cabinet endorsed a proposal to channel $180,051 a year to the State Bureau of Investigation so the agency can add three chemists to test drug and blood samples city and county investigators collect.

The next move is up to the City Council and the County Commissioners, one or both of which would have to agree to supply the necessary funding.

But “if we want it to be considered, we need to get it in the hopper now” because City Manager Tom Bonfield and County Manager Mike Ruffin are ready to start work on their fiscal 2013-14 budget proposals, Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said.

Reckhow is co-chairwoman of the crime cabinet, a joint panel that also includes justice-system officials, business leaders and representatives from nonprofit groups.

Local officials have talked of starting a Durham crime lab for years, but to date little has happened. Administrators have estimated such a facility would cost about $1 million to launch and another $250,000 a year to operate.

The desire for one comes because the SBI’s lab traditionally is slow to turn around samples police and sheriff’s department from around the state send in for testing.

It usually takes more than six months to secure results from the state lab, said Emily Leik, an intern for the city and county who helped assemble a report on the issue for the Crime Cabinet.

The delays contribute to extended jail stays for some suspects awaiting trial, or, on the flip side, to moves by judges to lower bail because they know there’s going to be a long wait for evidence.

Leik and Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley sized up several other options, including joining forces with another county to start a new lab or farming out the testing process to a lab in the private sector.

But recent changes to state law – brought on by complaints from defense attorneys about the SBI’s reporting practices – have made it harder to start a local lab, Leik said.

As for private labs, the most prominent ones in this area specialize in employment-related screening, she said.

Officials pondered asking the Duke University Health System to do the testing, but Leik couldn’t find anyone affiliated with the system who was willing to discuss the idea.

One Crime Cabinet member, Partners Against Crime District 3 activist Patricia Burchett, thought officials should try harder to make a deal with Duke. But Duke Police Chief John Dailey said it’s unlikely the university would be interested.

“I can’t speak for the medical center, but I would imagine the liability involved in this is going to be a very hard hurdle for Duke to overcome,” Dailey said.

Worsley acknowledged that the SBI option initially hadn’t seemed like it would gain much traction either, until Acting District Attorney Leon Stanback intervened.

“When we initially started this conversation, the SBI said no,” Worsley said. “The district attorney got involved and started talking to the SBI and the no changed to a yes. At the very beginning, we never thought we’d end up in this spot.”

Leik said paying the SBI would allow a speedier attack on the backlog, and “is the least expensive of all the viable options.”

But City Councilman Eugene Brown said any local approach amounts to a bailout of the state.

The SBI lab hasn’t been keeping up with its workload because “the leadership at the state level is not there” for funding a sufficient number of technicians to handle it, Brown said, adding that the state’s decisions are “putting the burden back on cities and counties” to solve the problem.