Columbus crime lab director Austin Shepherd and lab trainee Shanna Cunningham examine a mock piece of evidence for fingerprints in the Columbus Forensic Lab in this 2018 Dispatch file photo. Shepherd hopes to expand crime lab operations over the next year. Photo by: Dispatch file photo
February 8, 2019 11:10:43 AM
There are plans underway to expand the Columbus Crime Lab within the next two years, director Austin Shepherd told the Columbus Police Department citizen overview committee Thursday.
Shepherd, who helped start the crime lab in 2008, led a tour of the lab for the committee at its meeting at the Municipal Complex Thursday, touching on everything from the lab's budget and equipment to future plans -- plans which encapsulated the expansion.
"We're going to be able to address safety and health issues, security and privacy issues, evidence storage issues," Shepherd said.
Currently the lab -- one of only three municipal crime labs in the state, Shepherd said -- is located in an office building near the Municipal Complex next to Columbus Fire and Rescue offices. However, CFR personnel in those offices are due to move after the completion of a new fire station on Airline Road. Once that happens, Shepherd said, the crime lab will expand into those offices.
The expansion will allow for space for safety showers and restructuring of the front lobby to add more security features and privacy for office workers -- a change Shepherd called "tremendously helpful." Right now, he said, the front lobby acts not only as an entrance to the lab, but as office space for the lab's four employees and a place for law enforcement to hand over evidence.
Shepherd said he hopes to begin the expansion before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. It will cost up to $13,000, the bulk of which will be taken from the crime lab's $23,000 budget.
'A boon' to area law enforcement
In his presentation, Shepherd also went over the lab's five units: fingerprint analysis, drug analysis, digital forensics, crime scene investigation and property and evidence. Fifteen regular law enforcement agencies -- including police and sheriff's departments in Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Clay counties, as well as Mississippi State University and Mississippi University for Women police departments -- use the crime lab for cases, Shepherd said. All of those agencies but CPD pay for the lab's services, Shepherd said, bringing in anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000 per year.
The crime lab also saves time and money for CPD, which otherwise would have to send evidence from routine drug and burglary cases to the state crime lab that is currently backed up due to under-staffing and underfunding.
"Our fingerprint analysis time, we went from waiting about a year and a half to get results (when using the state crime lab) to two weeks," Shepherd said.
"We're able to keep a lot of (our cases) in-house," he added. "And quite frankly, when it's free in-house, you do a lot more of it. That has equated to a lot more cases solved. ... We're knocking it out of the park on fingerprint identifications. We're making dents on burglaries weekly."
In eight years, the lab has received more than 42,000 evidence items and run more than 60,000 tests.
CPD Lt. Anthony Nelson, who attended the meeting, said the crime lab had been "a boon." He used to be an investigator for the county before the crime lab opened, and he said any evidence would take years to be processed at the state crime lab.
"Something as simple as fingerprints, it would take three months to three years, depending on how backlogged they were," he said. "Now if I submit fingerprints to Austin, he can have it back within a few days at most, most of the time. They're also available to testify. If the defense attorney wants (to call the lab's employees), they're right there. They can come up to the court, they can testify, we can get this done.
"The money's well spent," he added.
Shepherd went over other improvements he hopes the lab can implement in the future, most notably the introduction of a career scale to help with employee retention. He also said the lab needs to address aging equipment -- right now the lab's gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GCMS, which analyzes drugs) is about 20 years old. It still works, he said, but he would like to see that and other equipment replaced in the next few years.
He added the lab wouldn't be as successful as it is without the support of city officials.
"You want to talk about out-of-the-box thinking to fight crime, right?" he said. "Opening up a municipal crime lab -- there's only two other of these in the state, and they're in Gulfport and Jackson -- legitimately bigger cities. So we're doing something folks said couldn't be done, and we couldn't do it without the mayor and we couldn't do it without the council and the support of (other city officials)."
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