City Council has appointed a nine-member board to oversee the city’s crime lab, the first step in yanking it from police department control and setting up a publicly funded non-profit corporation to do evidence testing.
The vote was 15-2.
For a decade the Houston crime lab has been mired in controversy over decrepit facilities, a backlog of more than 6,600 rape kits and past audits that raise questions about the integrity of testing. Several men have been exonerated after serving years in prison after convictions largely based on crime lab evidence that was later discredited.
Though Council members supported the mayor’s proposal to try to insulate the crime lab from pressure from police, prosecutors and politicians, some raised questions about the city’s plan to go it alone when the county is about to build its own forensics tower.
“There’s so many areas the city and county can save taxpayers money, and this is one of them,” said Councilman Jack Christie, who voted no. Councilwoman Helena Brown, the other no vote, called the plan “a political stunt” that wastes taxpayer money by failing to cooperate with the county.
Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former Houston police officer, said he would like to see a city-county operation. However, he said, the crime lab needs reform now and the Council can’t wait “for ships that may never come in.” Gonzalez and others said the city had an obligation to change the governance of the crime lab, regardless of whether it does so with the county’s cooperation.
Councilman Larry Green agreed.
“How long do we have to wait for justice?” Green said.
Mayor Annise Parker said the plan does not preclude the future participation of the county.
Earlier piece from Chron.com:
The City Council on Wednesday could wrest control of Houston’s crime lab from the police department and outsource it to a publicly funded nonprofit organization in an attempt to seal off evidence testing from the influence of police, prosecutors and politicians.
If the council approves Mayor Annise Parker‘s proposal to establish the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corp., the city would be among the first in the nation to put a civilian-run organization in charge of its crime lab operations.
The organization would inherit more than 6,600 untested rape kits, accusations that, until recently, its breath-alcohol testing vans yielded unreliable results, and the task of rebuilding public confidence after exonerations of people wrongfully convicted, in part, on the basis of faulty crime lab evidence.
“The lab has been for years more concerned with prosecution than it has with just putting out good science,” he said. “An independent lab should just be focused on science and not be focused on helping anybody.”
Independence called key
Little would change overnight in the city’s $21 million-a-year forensics work, such as DNA testing, serology, ballistics, toxicology, and fingerprint analysis, Giving the operation a new boss, however, would set in motion a transition that ultimately could result in a lab outside police headquarters staffed by employees of the corporation, not the police department.
“Having the lab be independent is how you avoid the natural inclination to want to win instead of get it right,” Councilwoman Melissa Noriega said.
Parker is seeking council confirmation of nine board members for the corporation – lawyers, academics, business people, a retired Houston police officer, led by a retiring state legislator as chairman. Noriega praised the group as “stellar people.”
The new board would hire a director and propose an annual budget for the council’s approval.
“This is an arm’s length relationship, but it’s not an independent relationship in the sense that we expect them to go out and raise their own funds,” Parker said Tuesday. “They’re going to govern it, but we have a responsibility to make sure that these tests are done and that they’re done to the highest scientific standards, and we recognize that we have a responsibility to continue to fund the activities of a forensic science center.”
The transformation of the city’s forensics operations occurs as Harris County is about to build a new forensics tower. The city and county have discussed but not agreed to a joint operation.
Parker has said that she hopes the local government corporation she proposes eventually will be a regional effort; the plan going to the council provides that five of the nine board seats eventually could be held by appointees from other government agencies.
‘Necessary first step’
“This does not in any way impact our ability to do work with Harris County or to ultimately collaborate in some way with Harris County. It is a necessary first step toward independence,” Parker said.
Most of the nation’s major cities rely on crime labs run by law enforcement agencies. The mayor’s proposal last month was praised by two law professors writing in a national journal that Houston “is on the right track” in calling for an independent crime lab. The consultant who five years ago issued a report that cast doubt on the reliability of evidence in hundreds of cases has described Parker’s plan as “a bold and serious proposal” to improve the city’s forensics.