The Austin Chronicle

Adventures in Copland

Oversight, accountability, and a shutdown of the crime lab

By Sarah Marloff and Nina Hernandez, December 29, 2017, News

Crime Lab Conundrums

2016 concluded with interim Police Chief Brian Manley's shutting down any effort to reopen the Police Department's now-infamously inept DNA lab. At the time, it seemed the only direction left to go was up, but boy were we wrong. From moldy, untested rape kits to the beginning of a years-long materiality review (to determine if anyone has been convicted on faulty/inaccurate DNA evidence), the first seven months of 2017 were not easy ones for the department. The lab's closure left thousands of cases (mostly rape kits) waiting to be sent out to contractors for testing. By March, the number of untested kits totaled more than 4,000. And in July, just as those numbers were finally falling, news broke that some material (mold? dirt?) had been growing on the outside of 849 backlogged kits. Sure, no mold has since been found inside the hundreds of kits currently out for testing, but it caused quite a scare.

Now, finally, it seems the department is back on track. Work is underway to ensure mold does not return, and the number of backlogged kits continues to drop rapidly – as of Nov. 29 the count was 856. As for APD's still-operating labs, Dr. Dana Kadavy, who served as the director of Biological Sciences at Signature Science, was hired as the new lab director in early December. And it looks like APD just might clear the backlog before the end of 2018. – S.M.

Matters of Oversight

City Council's recent eye-popping decision to direct a renegotiation of the police meet-and-confer agreement its Labor Relations staff spent the summer negotiating didn't come out of the thin December air. It was the result of a calculated effort on the part of a core group of criminal justice advocates who basically took up occupancy at the public bargaining sessions throughout the summer and fall, hosted town halls throughout the city, and recruited an array of students, academics, and other community interests. The attention throughout negotiations helped advance several accountability and transparency measures, which have been welcomed by interim Police Chief Brian Manley. Still, at the end of talks, activists declared the progress insufficient. Meanwhile, budget hawks wrestled with the idea of locking in more than $80 million in compensation expenses into a contract over the next five years, forming a coalition so strong that in the end, every council member voted in favor of renegotiation, despite a strong push from Manley and union membership.

Next year could find the two sides back at the table (if the union agrees), where the plot is sure to thicken. If not, Austin begins re-acclimating to operating a police department under state law, which has its own set of flaws.N.H.

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