Harris County breaks ground on new crime lab center

April 11, 2012 3:09:48 AM PDT
On Tuesday, dirt turned at the Texas Medical Center not to save lives, but to solve crime. We were there as Harris County started work on its new forensic genetics lab. It's a state-of-the-art project but we're investigating why it seems to be bogged down in old-fashioned politics.

It was like so many of these groundbreakings -- smiles, shiny shovels, big pronouncements.

Everyone involved in crime labs in the city and Harris County agrees it would be a good idea to work together. No one told us it would be a good idea to build two separate facilities, but that's exactly what will happen unless something changes.

"This DNA lab will solve crimes," Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos said.

But it's not always what you see that makes things news, but what you don't see, and this groundbreaking is a great example.

The new DNA lab will cost $7 million -- money provided entirely by Harris County. The biggest potential customer is obviously the Houston Police Department, but no one from the city of Houston was there Tuesday.

"I'd like to see them here," Lykos said.

But the city was not there. Right now, HPD runs its own crime lab, including a DNA lab, and is developing its own plan for another independent crime lab separate from the county.

"We understand the importance of having a truly independent lab," Houston City Councilman Ed Gonzalez said.

But Gonzalez says he also understands that sharing a lab would save taxpayers money and having two just a few miles from each other doesn't make sense to him.

"Clearly, if you could leverage buying power and efficiencies, it would always be best to collaborate," Gonzalez said.

The debate seems to be over who runs it. The city wants to an independent panel to run the labs; the county wants the medical examiner in charge and suggests the problems at HPD's crime lab in recent years took away any confidence in the city's technique.

"I don't want advice from people who've had no success in having a good crime lab. I mean, why do you want to listen to failure?" Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack said.

There is still time to find some common ground. The groundbreaking on Tuesday is only for the DNA lab. The city and county are still years away from the next step and there still may be time to work together and save you money.

"The mayor and I have talked and she wants to be a part of it. I'd like her to be part of it. I think Commissioners Court would welcome the city, but under certain conditions," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

"In principle, we would all like to do that. I think it makes sense but obviously we need two willing partners that are able to work something out," Gonzalez said.

The mayor's office assures us the city is talking to the county about the design of the county's new crime lab with an eye on working together at some point. They're just not certain it will bear fruit, in their words, and that independent board seems a big stumbling block.


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