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Photo by city of Austin: Austin Police Department Forensic Science Bureau

Council to move forensics department from APD

Thursday, February 4, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

City Council is set to create a new Forensic Science Department this week as part of its plan to move some civilian operations out of police control. Council members say the reshuffling will make the department more accountable and allow scientists to do their work better. 

“This is an important change for public safety and community trust,” Council Member Greg Casar, who sponsored the item, said at Tuesday’s work session. “Independence helps people trust that the lab will follow justice, wherever it leads, exonerating people who are innocent and holding people who caused harm accountable.”

The new structure, Casar said, is one way to help prevent the problems that APD’s current Forensic Science Bureau has faced in recent years, particularly with its DNA lab. Improper evidence handling caused the state to take over the bureau’s DNA lab in 2017, and for years the lab faced a massive backlog of rape kits.

Apart from shifting places in the city’s organizational chart, little else in the department will change – at least for now. The department’s $12 million budget will remain the same, and all current staff will stay on. The state of Texas will run the DNA lab until at least 2023, and the department will still outsource rape kit testing. The department also handles things like drug, ballistic and toxicology analysis.

“Changing the structure in and of itself does not solve the challenges,” Casar said, “but this … is one structural way that we can try to avoid some of those things coming up again.” 

The city could later opt to create an even more independent body, such as a local government corporation. “We’ll always be exploring those options,” City Manager Spencer Cronk said. Council Member Ann Kitchen pointed to Houston’s forensic lab, which is an LGC, as a potential model. 

An audit released last year of APD’s Forensic Science Bureau recommended that the bureau remove police influence in order to be “an agent of and practitioner of science and not an agent of law enforcement.”

Such independence, the report said, could be achieved through a separate city department, an LGC, or even the police department if “independence is jealously guarded and preserved.”

Several local advocacy groups pushed to ensure that the new department would be guided by proper science. In response, Casar plans to add an amendment that “makes clear that scientific integrity and the pursuit of justice are the clear goals of this new department.”

No Council members objected to the move, and Casar hopes it will pass on consent at Thursday’s meeting.

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