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Commission recommends moving APD forensics lab

Tuesday, March 8, 2022 by Jo Clifton

With little fanfare, Austin’s Public Safety Commission voted unanimously Monday to ask City Council to move the Forensic Science Bureau out of the Austin Police Department, making it independent both in structure and budget. Commissioners signaled last month that they would likely take up such a resolution this month after hearing from Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano that the city could likely make the move without jeopardizing its funding.

Eight of the commission’s 11 members attended the meeting and voted for the resolution, which was sponsored by commissioners Rebecca Bernhardt and Nelly Paulina Ramirez. Ramirez, the commission’s vice chair, was the only member to attend the meeting in person.

The crime lab has been a source of trouble for the city and its residents since 2016, when an audit raised serious doubts about the integrity of the tests the unit was performing.

According to the resolution, the city is committed to the Reimagining Public Safety Initiative, including decoupling some activities previously under the purview of law enforcement. Those activities include the work of forensic scientists, who strive to produce transparent results. The resolution noted that the 2009 National Academy of Science Report on Forensic Sciences “recommended that forensic labs be independent from law enforcement.”

Commissioners stated in the resolution that an independent Forensic Science Bureau would be on an equal footing with the Austin Police Department, enabling it to advocate for the best systems of analyzing evidence.

The resolution noted that until 2020, the budget of the Austin crime lab was grouped with other civilian services at APD, including vehicle and service maintenance, “making it impossible for elected officials to identify and allocate needed resources to the crime lab even after serious problems with both staffing and equipment had been identified.”

That problem could be solved, of course, by highlighting the amount budgeted within APD, but it would not solve the perception problem of a lab under the control of the police.

Last year, Council tried to separate the lab from APD during budget deliberations. However, the Texas Legislature had different ideas. Lawmakers approved House Bill 1900, which would have seriously punished any city of more than 250,000 residents that tried to “defund the police.” Council backed down, restoring the forensics lab and its $12 million budget back to the police department.

This year, there will be more time to discuss what Austin wants to do with the Office of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division, which has the job of determining whether a reduction in funds for the police department is acceptable under state law.

The office will want to know how the city intends to fund the department and who will be in charge before giving its approval. If that office approves the city’s plan, the city can move ahead with its budget. If not, Council is unlikely to move forward with any plan that would jeopardize future funding.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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