Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab’s future at risk

Jurisdictions opting out of local contracts to go with the state’s BCI lab.

When RTA bus driver Rickey Wagoner claimed he was shot during an attack by three black youths and saved by a devotional book that stopped two bullets, Dayton Police used evidence analyzed by the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab to determine he fabricated parts of his story.

The regional lab also analyzed the bathtub, DNA, fingerprints and other evidence in the sensational Warren County case in which Ryan Widmer, now 34 and in prison, was convicted of strangling his wife in 2008.

And when Dayton Police were piecing together evidence in the 2011 rape and murder of DeMisha Mattison, left dead in a Clover Street house with her young son, police worked “hand in hand” with crime lab investigators who analyzed DNA and other evidence to identify her ex-boyfriend, Karl D. Coleman Jr., 26, as the killer, said Dayton Police Major Chris Williams. He said the lab’s work helped convict Coleman, who last August was sent to prison.

“They do a tremendous job and we are lucky to have them,” said Williams, who oversees investigations.

But the regional lab’s future is at risk, even though it receives positive reviews from government and law enforcement officials — including from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. In recent years, multiple jurisdictions have dropped their contracts with the lab, citing the need to cut costs, and switched to DeWine’s revitalized — and free of charge — crime lab at the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation (BCI).

Montgomery County Coroner Dr. Kent Harshbarger and other officials fear that if the local crime lab is diminished through lost revenue and staff cuts that have already begun, top quality scientists will leave, the lab’s evidence turnaround times will lag, and local crime fighting efforts will suffer.

There are also questions about how much of the local lab’s work could be handled by the state lab, and whether some critical evidence testing would be sacrificed.

Local officials say BCI doesn’t do everything local law enforcement needs, such as toxicology work on blood and urine samples collected from impaired drivers. Touch DNA analysis — which searches for DNA on items touched by a suspect — is only done on violent crime cases at BCI, while the local lab does it on any type of crime, said Ken Betz, who has been the crime lab’s director since 1974.

“If they start to lose a significant amount of customers in a process that’s not planned out I think that’s bad for the region,” said Kettering City Manager Mark Schwieterman.

A group of local officials headed by Schwieterman will work with officials at BCI and the Dayton-based lab to decide what to do about the problem of lost revenue and what shape the crime lab should take in the future.

State funding infusion

State and federal taxpayers foot the bill for the BCI lab, which is headquartered in London, Ohio, with regional labs in Richfield, Bowling Green, Youngstown, Athens and Cambridge. That means local jurisdictions, many of them cutting costs where they can, don’t have to draw on their own coffers to have evidence analyzed.

All agree the state lab has been greatly enhanced since DeWine became Ohio’s Attorney General.

A Republican, DeWine ran against Democratic Attorney General Richard Cordray in 2010 promising he would improve the BCI crime lab, which had a reputation for slowness. After DeWine took office in 2011, the Republican-controlled legislature helped DeWine make good on his promise by giving BCI and its crime lab a huge funding boost.

This year’s BCI budget is $68.9 million — a $17.1 million increase over what Cordray had to work with in July 2010. The crime lab’s share of state funding for BCI has grown by 46 percent since Cordray’s final year in office.

With the infusion of funds came more staff, robots and other equipment, cutting turnaround time for DNA evidence from 125 days in 2010 to 22-23 days now, DeWine said. Last year the lab tested 224,399 items, more than double the number from 2010.

The state lab also added customers — about 110 new jurisdictions since 2011. Some of them submitted untested old rape kits that DeWine asked to be sent to BCI as part of an initiative he began after taking office.

From the nine-county Dayton region alone, 20 jurisdictions have begun using BCI since 2011, according to data provided by DeWine’s office.

“With us it was just cost savings,” West Carrollton Police Chief Doug Woodard said of the city’s decision to switch to BCI. “It had nothing to do with anything (the regional lab) did or didn’t do. It had nothing to do with service.”

West Carrollton, Miami Twp., Moraine, and Englewood all declined to renew their annual contracts with the regional lab for this year, a loss of more than $128,000 to the lab in annual revenue. Wilmington withdrew last year and in 2013 Huber Heights, New Lebanon and the Clinton County Sheriff’s office all left. The loss of revenue to the regional lab was $110,500 in 2012, after the Middletown Police, Five Rivers MetroParks and the Butler Twp. Police Department switched over to BCI.

Harshbarger acknowledges that improvements to the state labs have led to the departures.

“It used to be BCI’s service kept people here because it was terrible,” said Harshbarger, who is chairman of the regional lab’s board of directors. “It is now a quality lab, good service. Mike DeWine made a commitment on that, and ran on it and he did it. Now ‘free’ becomes a real selling point.”

Said Englewood City Manager Eric Smith: “It’s free versus $27,000.”

Location is an issue — Englewood is much closer to Dayton than to London, which is in Madison County — but Smith said he hopes to do what Miami Twp., Moraine and West Carrollton are now doing: combining their evidence packets in single trips to and from the BCI lab.

‘We can’t let Miami Valley close’

Among those concerned about the plight of the Miami Valley lab is DeWine.

“If Miami Valley closed today and we dumped everything at BCI, we don’t have the capacity to do it,” DeWine said. “It’s not in anybody’s interest to see Miami Valley close. We can’t let Miami Valley close. It has to emerge in some new arrangement.”

DeWine won’t say what that may be, but he did say he wants to do a study of crime lab needs in southwest Ohio. Local officials say there has been talk of BCI putting a lab in southwest Ohio or collaborating more closely with the regional lab.

Officials will also discuss whether BCI should take over most DNA testing while local labs do other types of evidence analysis under a “centers of excellence” concept.

DeWine says he simply wants to make crime lab analysis better and more efficient throughout the state. While he doesn’t have a study to prove it, he thinks his lab’s DNA testing may be the most cost-effective because of the sheer volume of work and the speed, aided by robotic technology. (The bureau has 11 robots.)

DeWine said he is not surprised that strapped jurisdictions are severing their local contracts, but he is concerned. About 18 crime labs are currently operating in Ohio.

“This is just happening,” he said. “If don’t get in front of the change and figure it out we are going to have a disaster.”

517,000 cases

In the last 40 years the Miami Valley regional lab has processed an estimated 517,000 cases brought by southwest Ohio law enforcement officials battling all manner of crimes, said Ken Betz, who is both director of the crime lab and of the coroner’s office.

Last year the regional lab handled 13,747 cases, down slightly from the year before. DNA turnaround time averages 38 days at the lab — compared to the 22-23 days that DeWine says the BCI lab does. However, it’s not clear if BCI and the regional lab use the same methodology for calculating turnaround time, said Denise Rankin, the regional lab’s assistant director.

Local officials emphasize that the local lab can give them the rapid turnaround they need on evidence such as drug samples, which must be tested before a case can move forward.

The lab formed in 1969 to serve about 20 law enforcement agencies. Since then it has grown into a high-tech, full-service operation with 26 employees and an annual budget this year of $3.6 million. It is overseen by a board of directors made up of coroners from Montgomery, Darke, Greene, Miami and Preble County. Last year the lab served 114 customers — mostly southwest Ohio police departments and sheriff’s offices — either under contracts or in fee-for-service arrangements.

In addition to the five core counties, the lab last year served customers in Warren, Butler, Clark, Champaign, Fayette, and Shelby counties, along with a few jurisdictions in other parts of the state.

The lab is unique in the state because its business model relies heavily on jurisdictions that pay an annual fee, set by a formula, rather than paying per submission. In other counties labs, may be mostly subsidized by the county or charge fees for service to users.

The Dayton Police Department is the regional lab’s largest customer, last year paying more than $505,000 for crime lab services, according to figures provided by the Montgomery County Auditor. The Montgomery County Sheriff’s office and the three townships it covers under contract are the second largest, accounting for nearly $188,000 in revenue last year.

Williams, the Dayton Police major, said the lab’s staff is available to provide critical advice on evidence during meetings with prosecutors and police to decide whether serious crimes will be taken to a grand jury.

Crime lab experts “explain to prosecutors the nitty-gritty details of what all these results mean,” said Williams. “That is no small thing.”

Regional lab staff also work near the county and municipal court buildings in Dayton, making it easy for them to testify about evidence during trials. BCI staff must drive to Dayton when they are needed to testify.

The lab’s work reflects the high-tech science involved in today’s crime fighting.

On a recent day a reporter visited the fingerprint lab, where an array of evidence — a cell phone case, sunglasses, a cup and CDs — hung by bent metal hangars and paper clips in an enclosure, drying out and awaiting inspection. Rankin said Super Glue is heated and the fumes react with amino acids left by skin, revealing unseen fingerprints.

More expensive processes, such as DNA analysis, also come into play.

“Technology has just moved so far,” said said Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly. “We solve cases that we would never have solved four or five years ago.”

Kelly said he uses the regional lab for blood and urine tests on impaired-driver cases, but goes to BCI for DNA testing.

‘It’s not free’

The high cost of maintaining an up-to-date lab — including the equipment and the training of staff in the latest technology — raises questions about whether taxpayers should be asked to pay for multiple labs across the state.

“One idea that might make sense is have BCI doing DNA, BCI doing, for example, the forensic work in regard to computers and cell phones and things like that,” DeWine said. “But maybe the chemistry work, basically the drug work would be done locally. My goal is to not impose anything on anybody.”

Emails obtained by the Dayton Daily News indicate that Hamilton County, the city of Hamilton and Monroe all asked BCI to open a lab in those locations. Former Dayton City Manager Tim Riordan and Smith said there is talk of the regional crime lab in Dayton becoming an arm of BCI.

A February 2014 email from Tom Stickrath, BCI superintendent, to DeWine’s staff, indicates that Hamilton County wanted BCI to open a lab in Cincinnati. “However,” Stickrath wrote. “I have previously made it clear that our interest in a SW lab would require the location to be midway between Cincinnati and Dayton.”

A BCI southwest Ohio lab could be a financial dagger that further threatens the regional lab in Dayton.

Stickrath said it is too early to speculate on whether BCI would open a lab, or if it makes more sense to collaborate with the regional lab or do something else, questions he hopes will be answered in a study that will begin this year.

Plans to hire a consultant for a southwest Ohio study were halted last year when Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco — who runs that county’s crime lab — said she was not interested in participating because police chiefs wanted to keep using her lab and the county was in the midst of discussions about relocating the lab to a vacant Catholic hospital.

Sammarco said the “centers of excellence” concept isn’t necessarily the best way to solve crimes. Evidence often requires multiple tests, she pointed out. A bedsheet from a crime scene, for example, may get tested for DNA as well as fiber and other trace evidence.

“Does each place wait their turn to work on that one piece of evidence? That could take a while,” Sammarco said. “Having everyone under one roof makes everybody more efficient and you can share your expertise with everyone else.”

Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat DeWine in last year’s election, said BCI may be free to jurisdictions but it is still costing taxpayers.

“It’s not free. The spending has gone up by millions,” said Pepper, who maintains that BCI’s work is more expensive per case than either the Miami Valley or Hamilton County crime labs.

Responded Stickrath: “I don’t think he would be in any position to have any idea about that.”

DeWine said the study BCI will conduct in southwest Ohio will attempt to make cost comparisons and project a 10-year window for crime labs in Ohio.

“The goals we should have are that police can get good work, prosecutors can get good work, sheriffs can get good work back to them, the public is protected and it is done as efficiently and cheaply as humanly possible,” he said.

Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation

Budget - Fiscal year 2015

All BCI - $68.86 million

BCI Crime lab share of budget - $22.37 million

Crime Lab Cases*

2011 - 29,468

2014 - 49,190

Percent change 2011 to 2014 - 67% increase

Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab

2015 Budget $3.6 million

Crime Lab Cases*

2011 - 14,917

2014 - 13,747

Percent change 2011-2014 - 7.8% decline

* Includes multiple evidence submissions

Source: Ohio Attorney General and Montgomery County

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