Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab shuts down DNA testing

Lab struggled to hire key position; local samples are now being sent to state agency

The Miami Valley Regional Crime Laboratory in downtown Dayton will no longer test DNA samples here, forcing local law enforcement to submit their evidence to a lab that is run by the state.

Hiring a qualified technical leader for the section proved to be a challenge over the last two years, Crime Lab Director Brooke Ehlers said, and without the position, the lab couldn’t meet its accreditation to enter its samples into a database used by law enforcement. Ehlers said the lab hasn’t had issues hiring or retaining scientists in other sections and offered competitive pay and flexibility to try to fill the job.

“It was obviously a devastating decision that we had to make, but we do think that it is was the best decision for the agencies and for the community,” Ehlers said.

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The Miami Valley Regional Crime Laboratory is a forensic science facility that assists law enforcement with criminal investigations.

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations lab in London will take up testing DNA samples for the region. BCI has contacted local law enforcement to discuss the changes, Ohio Attorney General Press Secretary Steven Irwin said.

“The additional casework from the Dayton agencies will be absorbed under BCI’s current capabilities, and we do not anticipate a significant impact to any agency,” Irwin said. “BCI is hiring two additional forensic scientists in the DNA section in anticipation of the extra caseload from the Dayton agencies.”

The Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab recently was awarded $1 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds through the governor’s office, and much of that money was planned to be spent on the DNA section. That money is being reallocated to different departments in the crime lab and the coroner’s office, Ehlers said, and the lab will continue to work with law enforcement on other priorities, including drug and property crime, and analyzing fingerprints.

“A lot of times when the public generically thinks of a crime lab, they think of the most violent crimes, and the most violent crimes are typically the ones that are going to our DNA section,” Ehlers said. “We don’t want people to think that we’re not able to solve crimes and help the community any more.”

Dayton Police making the change

Maj. Brian Johns with the Dayton Police Department said having the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab next door to its headquarters is convenient, but it has already started submitting DNA evidence to BCI.

“As a department, we did make the decision to transport our own evidence to BCI; that was their recommendation as well,” Johns said. “That is an added step that we make two trips a week to BCI in London, Ohio, but there’s not really much of an alternative, because their isn’t anyone else, so that’s just what we’ve got to do.”

Dayton Police utilizes DNA evidence in different types of cases, including homicides and sexual assaults. For instance, blood on a shell casing would be sent for testing to determine who it belongs to, and the determination could lead to an arrest.

“The issue that we have, we had some cases already over at Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab that had already been started, and those had to stop, so the process of getting those cases back, prioritizing them and getting them tested while we have new cases coming in has been the hard part,” Johns said.

The Dayton Police Department is the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab’s biggest customer, Johns said, and DPD is currently working through the process to get everything sorted out. BCI is taking on a lot of work, the major said, but has been helpful.

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BCI offers analysis at no cost to local agencies, Irwin said, and is working with the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab and Dayton area agencies to address the previously submitted samples. BCI is trying to ensure that all samples get tested in a timely manner.

“BCI’s current turnaround time for DNA work, from submission to results is 28.4 days,” Irwin said. “We do not track other labs but have received anecdotal/personal feedback that indicates that our turnaround times are among the fastest in the state and country.”

Some surveys found the national average is much longer , Irwin said.

“BCI is always monitoring staffing levels and efficiencies to make sure that we are providing law enforcement agencies accurate and timely analysis,” he said.

The Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab is offering equipment from its DNA section to BCI first, Ehlers said, and then will offer it to other labs in Ohio to ensure it’s being put to good use. It is also working to transfer two federal grants to BCI to help deal with the new case load.

“We do feel that we are handling this as responsibly as possible and making sure that the funding is going to appropriate places, the equipment is going to appropriate places,” Ehlers said. “It’s a huge regret that we are not directly able to help the citizens of Montgomery County, but I think working with BCI to make this transition as easy as possible provides the little bit of relief that we can give.”

Lab still working to solve crimes

While it will no longer provide assistance with DNA samples, Ehlers said the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab will still work for the public in other ways.

The lab is working with the University of Dayton on a new 3D fingerprinting model, the drug chemistry section is working on analyzing edible cannabis samples (something no one else in the state is doing) and the toxicology section will be able to buy new cutting-edge equipment with the grant from the governor’s office.

“They also have a three-week turnaround right now on our toxicology cases that (go to) our coroner’s office,” Ehlers said. “So within three weeks they’re able to issue reports that are able to expedite the return of autopsy reports so we can bring closure to families a lot quicker.”

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She said toxicology is working on new ways to test samples from alleged impaired drivers as well.

“We have really a lot of amazing things going on, but unfortunately that’s not what the public goes to when you think of forensic science or CSI,” Ehlers said. “So we obviously want to be able to help with those more violent crimes, but hopefully by working on the property crime and working on things of that nature, we can also maybe stop some of those crimes before they become more violent.”

The Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab isn’t the first lab to discontinue it’s DNA program. The Canton/Stark lab did so in 2014, Irwin said, and its casework was taken on by the BCI laboratory system.

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