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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Crime Lab May Face Accreditation Loss

Law enforcement: Cramped quarters, steep backlog plague 20-year-old sheriff's facility. New laboratory would cost up to $18 million, but no money is available.

September 21, 2000|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Crime lab manager Renee Artman knows she's lost something among her army of scientists and array of sophisticated computer equipment lined against the lab's walls and desktops.

Space.

In the 20 years since what was then a state-of-the-art lab opened to house eight forensic scientists, the staff tripled, a DNA lab opened, and a stream of high-tech equipment moved in.

Now, the quarters are so cramped that the lab's current national accreditation, state-mandated for all labs by 2004, is threatened. And a steep backlog, up to five weeks for coroner cases, is growing, said Artman, forensic sciences laboratory manager for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.

Artman can't hire more people to help cut the backlog, she said, "because we have no room for them. This is critical. This is a real need, spelled with big letters, for the residents of our county."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 22, 2000 Ventura County Edition Metro Part B Page 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Crime lab--A headline and story Thursday about the Sheriff Department's crime lab contained incorrect information. The lab does not have national accreditation, but is seeking it.

The obvious solution, building a new lab, would cost up to $18 million, which the department does not have, sheriff's officials say. And since the failure in March of Proposition 15, which would have raised about $220 million statewide for new police crime labs, Artman and others in the department are scrambling for any way to get more money.

This summer, Artman, Cmdr. Bruce Hanson and Cmdr. Joe Harwell traveled three times to Sacramento to lobby state legislators for money, but the proposal died in committee. Artman then turned to Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks), asking him to plead with Gov. Gray Davis to include the cash in his annual budget.

Davis turned down the request, while, in the same budget, doling out nearly $96 million for similar improvements for sheriff's and Police Department crime labs in Los Angeles, Artman said.

Authorities are left trying to scrape out every extra inch within the lab. Filing cabinets have been pushed into hallways, and the lab's property room probably will be moved elsewhere in the department to create another work room, officials said.

But those are only Band-Aid fixes to the more looming problem, said Harwell, who oversees the crime lab for the department.

If money for a new lab isn't found soon, the lab may not be accredited, which could make Ventura County's lab one of the few in California, and possibly the nation, without that rating, Artman said.

"Imagine how that will hurt our credibility in court," Artman said. "Imagine, across the country all crime labs are accredited and we are not. People will ask: 'Why? Are they not meeting nationally set requirements? There must be some reason they are not accredited.' "

It also would give defense lawyers a tool to use against county prosecutors as they defend local clients, Artman said.

According to standards set by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, all labs should maintain a minimum work space area for employees--about 1,000 square feet per scientist, with the intent to prevent contamination of samples. Ventura County's forensic scientists, which includes 24 staff members and up to five interns, have about 350 feet of work space each.

The local lab already takes careful steps to prevent contamination, she said. All scientists work from separate benches and tables, which reduces the chance that blankets and clothing spread across the lab could make contact.

And while there are four DNA scientists, no more than two are allowed in the 1400-square-foot DNA lab at one time. Artman said if there were room, she would hire a fifth DNA expert to help with the unit's growing number of murder and sexual assault cases.

Authorities have contemplated cheaper solutions to the space problem, including adding rooms to the existing facility. But the sensitive equipment used for analysis and concerns over flying dust and debris creating contamination mean no work could be done during construction.

Harwell said the latest plan is to relocate the department's detectives from the first floor and dedicate the area to the lab's secretaries and administrators. That's where a 5-by-6-foot computer used for bullet and cartridge analysis is set to be delivered in a few weeks.

Each move will carve out more room, but not enough for the 1,000-square-foot work space needed, Artman said. And it's not enough to meet future needs.

So sheriff's officials hope Davis will deliver in his next round of budget negotiations. Without state money, Artman said, it's unclear what the department will do next.

"We are all hoping Gov. Davis will recognize the critical needs of other agencies outside of Los Angeles," Artman said. "If not, I don't know. It will leave us in a black hole."

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