• Sun. Aug 7th, 2022

The Commission recommends relocating the APD forensic laboratory

ByChad J. Johnson

Mar 8, 2022

Tuesday, March 8, 2022 by Jo Clifton

With little fanfare, the Austin Public Safety Commission voted unanimously Monday to ask the city council to move the Bureau of Forensic Sciences out of the Austin Police Department, making it independent both in its structure and its budget. Commissioners signaled last month that they would likely pass such a resolution this month after hearing from Deputy City Manager Rey Arellano that the city could likely make the move without jeopardizing its funding.

Eight of the 11 commission members attended the meeting and voted for the resolution, which was sponsored by commissioners Rebecca Bernhardt and Nelly Paulina Ramirez. Ramirez, vice-chairman of the commission, was the only member to attend the meeting in person.

The crime lab has been a source of trouble for the city and its residents since 2016, when an audit raised serious doubts about the integrity of the unit’s tests.

According to the resolution, the city is committed to the Reinventing Public Safety initiative, including decoupling certain activities that were previously the purview of law enforcement. These activities include the work of forensic scientists, who strive to produce transparent results. The resolution noted that the National Academy of Sciences’ 2009 report on forensic sciences “recommended that forensic laboratories be independent of law enforcement.”

The commissioners said in the resolution that an independent office of forensic science would be on equal footing with the Austin Police Department, allowing it to champion the best systems for analyzing evidence.

The resolution noted that through 2020, the Austin crime lab budget was bundled with other civilian services at ODA, including vehicle and utility maintenance, “making it impossible for elected officials to identify and allocate necessary resources to the crime lab even after serious problems. with personnel and equipment had been identified.

This problem could be solved, of course, by highlighting the amount budgeted within ODA, but that would not solve the problem of perception of a lab under police control.

Last year, the Council tried to separate the laboratory from ODA during budget deliberations. However, the Texas legislature had different ideas. Lawmakers approved the 1900 House Bill, which would have severely punished any town with more than 250,000 residents who tried to “defund the police.” The board backed down, restoring the forensic lab and its $12 million budget to the police department.

This year, there will be more time to discuss what Austin wants to do with the Governor’s Office Criminal Justice Division, which is tasked with determining whether a cut in funds for the police department is acceptable under of state law.

The board will want to know how the city plans to fund the department and who will be responsible before giving its approval. If this office approves the city plan, the city can move forward with its budget. Otherwise, the Council is unlikely to move forward with a plan that would jeopardize future funding.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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