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Henderson considers grant to study feasibility of new crime lab

The wheels of justice may move slowly, but the Henderson Police Department wants to find out if a new forensic crime lab would speed the process.

The Henderson City Council today will consider approval of a $70,000 community-funded grant to evaluate the needs, programming, feasibility and cost of constructing and equipping a new crime lab for the police department.

The forensic crime lab is housed in a 4,500-square-foot building built in 1987 that previously housed private medical offices. The city acquired the building in 2002 for $450,000.

“The crime lab definitely needs a change,” Police Chief Patrick E. Moers said. “The crime lab is across the street from the police department in an old building that’s not really sustainable for the future of a lab to do all the processing. We need to update the lab.”

The crime lab handles various cases including blood alcohol and controlled substances analysis. The lab is developing a toxicology lab, and an impressions evidence lab to analyze fingerprints, footwear impressions and tire impressions.

Rick Workman, the city’s criminalistics administrator, said the typical lab includes a crime scene investigation unit and evidence vault, but those are currently housed in the basement of the police headquarters across the street behind City Hall.

“A new building will give us the ability to work properly, safely and in the right amount of space for the existing personnel,” said Workman, adding the city is being proactive and not responding to any current issues with the city attorney’s office or the courts.

If the grant is approved, Henderson-based Tate Snyder Kimsey Architects will assess the space needed to support staffing levels and predict staffing requirements needed to bring everything under one roof.

The assessment is expected to be completed by the end of the summer, Workman said. Moers said he’d like to see a new forensic lab within two years if funding is available.

The police department estimates it would need approximately 12,000 square feet, probably in a new building built to the specifications for the crime lab. The city has had to retrofit the current crime lab building to try to keep up with changing technologies in forensic investigations.

Moers, who didn’t have a dollar amount for the cost of a new facility, said a crime lab runs more efficiently and the evidence’s chain of custody is more secure if the lab, crime scene personnel and evidence are under one roof.

Public Works Director Bob Murnane, whose department would help oversee the construction of a new crime lab, said the economic downturn forced the city to defer several high-priority projects, including a new lab.

“The lab itself is in a building that wasn’t designed for that purpose,” Murnane said. “It was a private building that the city acquired. We’ve repurposed it two or three times for different things.”

When the current police department building on Lead Street was built behind City Hall in 1993, the crime lab consisted of an employee in a room processing fingerprints.

It sent the majority of its forensic work to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

Moers said there were cases in which the courts let people go because evidence hadn’t been processed yet. Bringing the crime lab to Henderson began in 2006, saving the city money, making the evidence’s chain of custody more secure and delivering forensic results to Henderson courts quicker.

“When our stuff was going out to Metro, you’re in a backlog with all the other agencies in the valley,” Moers said. “(Henderson) stuff isn’t really a priority unless it’s a big felony case.”

The Henderson crime lab and its 10 employees still run at a six-to-eight week backlog due to staffing levels and space.

Even if a new crime lab is built, Henderson will still send some forensic evidence to Metro to ensure a stronger chain of custody if cases are likely to end up in Clark County District Court in downtown Las Vegas. These includes blood alcohol and blood drug felony cases, DNA analysis and firearms.

Funding for the assessment will come from the Henderson Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises money from residents and community businesses for projects in the city.

Contact Arnold M. Knightly at aknightly@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3882. Follow @KnightlyGrind on Twitter.

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