City Proposes Spinning Off Crime Lab Into Separate Agency

Mayor Annise Parker is proposing that the City of Houston spin off its crime lab into an independently run organization, similar to the Houston Parks Board or the Port Authority. The crime lab, which has a history of problems, is currently part of the police department. But it's still unclear what this would mean for a joint city-county crime lab.

The city’s crime lab has improved in recent years, but Mayor Annise Parker admits that the public still remembers the time when the city had to suspend DNA testing because of shoddy forensic work.

And the city is still dealing with a huge backlog of untested rape kits.

“We have to bring credibility back to the system for both the accused and the victims who have lost trust in our ability to provide services. Tests have to be done in a timely manner/basis and they have to be accurate. There’s just too much at stake for us not to ultimately resolve this issue.”

Parker has proposed the creation of a seven-member, independent governing board for all forensic functions.

“From the start my goal has been independence — a crime lab independent of police, independent of prosecutors and independent of political pressure from this horseshoe.”

The board members would be appointed by the mayor, or perhaps some would be appointed by Harris County if the commissioners decide to join the effort.

Parker says an independent board would protect the forensic scientists from any interference, and that would help restore public trust.

“It flies in the face of what you see on your TV screens week-after-week, CSI this and CSI that, scientists working hand in hand with the police in search of justice. Unfortunately, that relationship when in true search of justice in real life, can be problematic. And the scientists are often pressured to sacrifice appropriate methodology in favor of expediency.”

Judge Ed Emmett did not say whether Harris County would join the new local government corporation.

He says the county’s medical examiner, Dr. Luis Sanchez, works with national accreditation groups to ensure that the county’s DNA, toxicology and other tests are done correctly.

“He says, ‘Look we’re already governed by all these six groups that come down and decide whether what we’re doing is right or wrong.’ So in terms of the oversight of the science itself, we’re already there.”

The city spends almost $23 million a year on crime testing.

Parker says she’d still like to cooperate with the county on a joint crime lab, and her idea for a new governing board shouldn’t preclude an eventual agreement.

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...