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Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT

Austin officially moves forensics lab out from under police department

Friday, February 5, 2021 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

In a move long advocated for by survivors of sexual assault, the Austin City Council voted Thursday to officially transfer its forensics bureau out from under the police department. It will now function as an independent entity.

“This move is a long time coming,” Council Member Greg Casar said before the unanimous vote. “It’s because of many survivors and advocates sharing their stories that we’re able to make the lab finally independent of the police department.”

Thursday’s vote is part of a larger conversation about how Austin wants its police department to function. Last summer, Council members voted to immediately cut $20 million from the Austin Police Department’s budget and use the money on public health and housing.

At the same time, Council members voted to move several divisions out from under the police department, including the forensics bureau. The decision takes another $80 million from the police budget.

Thursday’s vote makes the lab’s move official, as Council OK’d the creation of a new and independent Forensic Science Department.

The decision will have no effect on current employees, according to the city manager’s office.

Austin’s DNA lab, which has received enormous attention over the past few years, will not be immediately moved under the new department, however. Its future remains a bit unclear.

The Texas Department of Public Safety took control of the lab from the Austin Police Department in 2017 after state auditors raised concerns about how analysts were processing samples. In October, the city released an extensive and long-overdue report on what happened at the lab and how it might be run in the future. Outside consultants wrote that the city would benefit from having a DNA lab independent from the police department.

“Any DNA laboratory established within the City of Austin should have a structure of independence, scientific excellence, transparency, and operational excellence and efficiency,” the consultants wrote.

Per city contract, the lab will be managed by DPS until early 2022, and possibly longer, a city spokesperson confirmed. But a spokesperson for Casar’s office said the DNA lab will “eventually” become part of the new forensics department or a separate, independent entity.

Supporters of survivors of sexual assault say that is massively important.

“To be honest, we’re super excited,” Amanda Lewis, co-founder of the Survivor Justice Network, told KUT. “When we take (the DNA lab) out of APD … it’s really in its own place, as it should be, led by scientists and not weighed priority-wise based on what else APD has going on.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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