AUSTIN TX Dec 6 2016— The Austin Police Department is taking advantage of signed DNA testing agreements with two private forensic labs to help ease the backlog of 3,000 sex assault kits while its own crime lab is months away from reopening after its sudden shut-down in June.
The Southwest Institute of Forensic Science in Dallas is handling 100 cases every two weeks. A second group called Signature Science is handling a number as well, Asst. Chief Troy Gay told Austin’s Public Safety Commission Monday.
Since June, the Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab has also assisted APD with testing 20 so-called critical cases every month.
Assistant Chief Troy Gay tells Public Safety commissioners he hopes to have all sex assault kits sent out within six months, which should prompt a turn-around on all outstanding cases within 12 months. Due to backlogs at the DPS crime lab, Austin police are also pulling back 180 less urgent cases it handed off to DPS which is also backed up – and are now sending them to the private labs for analysis and screening.
Back in September, APD said they were able to allocate $500,000 to help pay for the testing of the backlogged kits. The Austin City Council also added $1.4 million to its general fund to re-train people and add seven analysts and one recently-hired supervisor to the currently-shuttered APD DNA lab.
Police executives are moving ahead with plans to reopen the lab this spring, the exact direction dependent of course on the recommendation of an outside consultant. That person could be chosen by a city-county working group by the New Year.
A second consultant is being hired this winter to look back at what went wrong at the APD lab and if staff discipline is warranted. Chief Gay tells KXAN News that report could be up to a year in the making. No cost is associated with either proposed study.
On Dec. 1, the Travis County Criminal Court Judiciary sent a letter to the Austin mayor as well as members of the city council requesting the creation of an independent drug and DNA lab for Travis County. Fifteen judges signed the letter indicating they believe that an independent lab is “essential to the integrity of our criminal justice system.”
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt also expressed concern over problems with the Austin lab.
Well ahead of Monday’s Public Safety Commission meeting, Interim Chief of Police Brian Manley emailed commissioners asking them to hold off for at least a month on a planned vote on whether the lab should become an independent entity. Manley is asking them to wait until the proposed outside consultant is hired to examine all the options for the lab’s future.
The email came Nov 22, a day after Manley met with the new DA as well as county and city officials to discuss the lab’s future.
“We are all committed to a thorough review of best practices…and oversight of the DNA lab when it opens,” Manley wrote in the email.
The chair of the public safety commission tells KXAN News an independent lab won’t curb APD’s ability to prioritize cases, a concern of Manley’s predecessor Art Acevedo.
Rebecca Webber, chair of the Public Safety Commission, says that would be an easy fix if the consultant recommends going forward with an independent lab. “You’ll have some sort of memorandum of understanding. APD will be the lab’s biggest customer so if ever there is a very high profile case, say a police officer is murdered for example, [the memo] can say that that would immediately go to the top of the list.”