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Safety commissioners voice concerns about forensic officer’s firing

Tuesday, April 4, 2017 by Jack Craver

Slowly but surely, reported Austin Police Department officials at a recent meeting of the Public Safety Commission, the city of Austin is reducing its backlog of DNA evidence.

The total backlog has dropped from roughly 4,500 batches in June to 2,535 now, reported Assistant Chief Troy Gay. That’s made up of 1,686 sexual assault kits, 1,233 of which are at least a year old.

Gay reiterated the department’s goal to end the backlog by April of next year.

However, those figures were overshadowed by commission members’ frustration over unanswered questions relating to the problems that forced the police department to close its forensics lab last year.

Commissioner Kim Rossmo ridiculed the department’s inability to come up with answers that he claimed he would be able to find “within a week” if he were running the show. Instead, he said, the city has not only been forced to outsource its lab work, but it is poised to hire an outside contractor to find out what went wrong.

Chair Rebecca Webber similarly expressed disappointment with the slow pace at which they were getting answers, but reminded the commission that it had approved a resolution last year that recommended focusing on “a solution, rather than looking back.”

She also suggested Rossmo was overstating the simplicity of the task at hand.

“I don’t know if it’s as easy as saying we can hang a few people and it’s done,” she said.

Rossmo is also troubled by the department’s decision in December to fire Scott Milne only a few weeks after hiring the Phoenix-based criminalist to run the crime lab. At the time, interim Chief Brian Manley said that others in law enforcement had encouraged him to review Milne’s college transcripts, after which he concluded that Milne was unqualified for the position.

Now that Milne is gone and the city has opted to contract with the state Department of Public Safety for lab work, said Rossmo, DNA analysis for APD cases will be led by a DPS official, Jody Koehler, who last year applied unsuccessfully for the job that Milne received.

“Now this person is running the lab even though they were a failed candidate” for the city position, said Rossmo, referring to Koehler.

Rossmo further suggested that somebody who stood to benefit from Milne’s firing contacted APD about the transcripts. He was not assuaged by Gay’s claim that the department was alerted to the issue because of an open records request from a media outlet. The reporter making the request was likely tipped off by somebody who had a direct interest in the matter, Rossmo said.

In an interview after the meeting, Rossmo said people should “follow the money” to figure out who was behind the request for Milne’s transcripts. Asked whether he was suggesting that DPS was involved, he said, “You can fill in those blanks. I’m not going to. But you have to question why that would happen, given how unusual that is.”

Commissioner Mike Levy was the only other commissioner who echoed Rossmo’s concerns about Milne’s firing.

Commissioner Preston Tyree said he was “more comfortable” with the outcome than Rossmo, saying that he didn’t see the sequence of events as evidence of a “conspiracy.”

Rossmo did not back down. “Who brought up the issue of the transcripts?” he asked. “Until we have an answer for that, I’m going to stick with the conspiracy theory.”

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