El Paso Police Crime Lab: faster justice or wasted dollars

El Paso Police Crime Lab: faster justice or wasted dollars
Special Reports

POSTED: Monday, February 24, 2014 - 9:15pm

UPDATED: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 1:24pm

El Paso, like several other cities, is home to two crime labs.

One belongs to the El Paso Police Department and the other to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

With El Pasoans' tax money helping to keep both open, some ask the question: Are two crime labs really necessary?

City officials said the El Paso Police Department Crime Lab opened its doors thanks to a grant several years ago.

The department of public safety lab was opened back in 1972.

Unlike the flashy labs you would typically see on T.V. the El Paso Police Department Lab only tests narcotics.

Once the grant money ran out to fund it, the burden of the lab fell solely onto El Paso residents.

In 2011 the crime lab lost accreditation and became privatized back in 2012, by a company called Integrated Forensics Laboratories.

Tax payers are now paying to outsource the work onsite, and on top of that paying to run the state crime lab as well.

It's something El Paso city representative Dr. Michael Noe disagrees with.

“The city of El Paso pays I believe 100 percent of it,” he said. “Now I've asked the county if they would chip in some because the county seems to be the one most concerned about losing it and they have expressed any desire whatsoever to pay one cent into this."

The El Paso Department of Public Safety Crime Lab tests a number of things including narcotics, firearms and alcohol among others.

Their budget is a little over $690,000 for the fiscal year 2014.

Officials said federal funding covers another $70,000 for DNA testing.

Texas Department of Public Safety Press Secretary Tom Vinger said the DPS crime lab completed the following number of cases in calendar year 2013:

Blood alcohol - 897

Controlled substances - 632

DNA related - 408

Firearms related - 108

Meanwhile, El Paso's Police Department Crime Lab has a budget of a little more than $500,000 for the fiscal year of 2014.

And even with the costs, District Attorney Jaime Esparza said there are plenty of benefits to having a lab at the police department's headquarters.

"Ninety percent of the cases just overall that are filed in this courthouse are cases that come from the El Paso police department," he said.

Esparza said there are a good amount of drug cases that need the crime lab for testing in order to move forward in court quicker.

The turn around rate for DPS is up to 90 days, whereas the EPPD crime lab can be as fast as a couple of days.

From September 2012 to December 2013 the police lab tested nearly 4,963 drug samples.

2,337 were for Marijuana

141 were for Spice

2,485 were for another type of drug.

“The crime lab that's at the El Paso police department is really essential for us to be able to move the cases quickly, move them to a grand jury, and make sure they are tested and we know exactly the substance we are dealing with," said Esparza.

Noe has a few doubts about whether the city is actually benefiting El Pasoans or if its benefiting the criminals.

“I have a problem with that, spending half a million dollars just to not inconvenience somebody who has broken our law, because I have no problem inconveniencing them," said Noe.

He said without grant money, the police lab needs to close its doors.

"Could we go back to letting the DPS do what they are supposed to be doing and using that half a million dollars elsewhere,” said Noe. “There are a lot of other places in the city that the half of million dollars would be quite useful."

Police say the two labs don't test the same kind of evidence.

"There are different levels of offenses,” said Chief Assistant for the El Paso Police Michelle Gardner.
“With DPS they will only test the highest level. Whereas we for various reasons might want all levels of an offense tested. And we get that with this lab."

Gardner said it’s thanks to their crime lab the police have been able to keep their work from piling up.

"The backlog of the narcotics testing that we've had, has been eliminated,” she said. “So they are operating on a no backlog basis. It’s another benefit that we are very up to date."

We reached out to residents on our Facebook page, and this is what they had to say.

Valente Alvarado said "why should I have two cars when I can only drive one. That doesn't make any sense. Be smart and quit wasting tax payer’s money."

Mari Hyrtel said “If there are many cases to be solved and the labs are justified, sure why not."

The DPS crime lab is already looking into moving to a bigger facility, according to Vinger.

Accordint to city officials, the time frame could take about two years.

The larger facility will allow for additional testing in the future., and the expansion is all state funded by the 80-th legislature.

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