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Proud Huntington Beach Lab Feels Pinch Too

October 29, 1995|GEOFF BOUCHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Two decades ago, the Police Department here created its own crime lab to escape the delays at the Orange County sheriff's lab, which even then was wrestling with the daunting task of analyzing evidence for two dozen local agencies.

For Huntington Beach officials, the cost of setting up an in-house facility was worth it to ensure their citizens that they were getting the quickest, most efficient investigations possible. But now, hit with staffing and budget cuts, the city's lab is facing the same harsh fiscal realities that have led to curtailed services at its county counterpart.

"We were spoiled a little bit in the past," lab director Eston Schwecke said of his facility, the only major crime lab in the county besides the sprawling sheriff's operation. "There was a time when we were not limited in any way. Any training we could find, any analysis we could do to serve the public--we could do it. That has changed."

Now the lab staff must tell detectives to pick and choose the cases that merit lab work. Backlogs can delay latent fingerprint analysis for property crimes for weeks, even months. Those prints are no longer routinely checked against a statewide database to help identify criminals. Training budgets and new equipment purchases have been frozen.

"We have made some changes, we have made some choices," Schwecke said. "And not everyone is happy with those choices, but that's how things are."

Earlier this month, veteran Huntington Beach police detective Charles E. Nowotny blasted the lab during a City Council meeting, suggesting that backlogs and scaled-back services could damage the lab's reputation. He even compared it to the beleaguered Los Angeles police crime lab, made famous by the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Schwecke dismissed Nowotny's cautionary remarks as the talk of a frustrated cop who was accustomed to enjoying the lab's high standards. He pointed out that city's detectives still enjoy quicker and more tailored services than any other city department in Orange County, and he cited cases where the lab's 14-member staff used scientific sleuthing to identify suspects.

"Some of those benefits are difficult to measure or put a price on," he said.

Huntington Beach spends $1.3 million a year on its lab, which performs services that the county lab would be required by state lab to provide for free. Schwecke, however, noted that the city lab allows detectives to sidestep the even greater backlog of evidence at the sheriff's facility.

The Police Department's commitment to the facility has been steady, and Chief Ronald E. Lowenberg has referred to the lab as a shining example of technology bolstering police work.

Those sentiments buoy the spirits of Schwecke and his busy staff, but they don't take the sting out of cutbacks.

"It's hard when you have the luxury of doing all these things and then you have to start making tough choices, choices that nobody wants to make," he said. "We want to do everything that can be done. Everything. We don't want any bad guys out there that we can get. So it's frustrating."

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