Other, smaller law enforcement agencies across Cleburne and Calhoun counties will have to learn how to take photographs of crime scenes, collect evidence from those scenes and transport it, unaltered, to laboratories hours away from those scenes.
That’s because looming General Fund budget cuts and proration mean the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences will lose 15 percent of its state funding and, in the process, will be forced to close three satellite laboratories – including one located at Jacksonville State University’s complex at McClellan.
DFS Director Michael Sparks said the McClellan facility and labs in Florence and Dothan will all be closed by August as a way to combat the loss of $850,000 in state money without laying people off, which Sparks said is all but a done deal.
“Florence, Jacksonville, and Dothan: They are the most expensive laboratories to run,” Sparks said. “It’s all economy of scale; some of our best employees are working in these satellite labs … we’ll make some of that money up by transferring people to Huntsville, Hoover, Montgomery and Mobile, so we can work cases cheaper.”
The closure of that McClellan facility is a problem for law enforcement agencies across Calhoun and Cleburne counties, who’ve relied on the local lab to process all of their drug-related evidence for the past 37 years.
“Oh yeah, if you think about it right now, we just drive to Jacksonville to drop our evidence off and they process it there,” said Lt. Chris Roberson, leader of the Calhoun-Cleburne Drug & Violent Crimes Task Force.
With the pending cuts and lab closures, the DFS employees who work at McClellan will be merged with the Hoover office, Sparks said.
That will require the Drug Task Force and all other local agencies – such as the Anniston and Weaver police departments and the Cleburne County Sheriff’s Office – to spend hours on the Interstate to drive seized drugs to Hoover.
“It ain’t going to end us by any means, but it kills more man hours and costs more money in gas,” Roberson said, noting the recently rising fuel prices.
Weaver police Chief Wayne Bush said he, too, has considered the increased costs his department will have to take once the McClellan lab closes.
Anniston Investigator Travis Bentley, who works as part of the department’s crime scene division, said the prospect of longer trips to transport evidence that now is processed right down the road is annoying to think about, but the real problem for his office will be “the possibility of a delay” in receiving results from the labs processing the evidence.
And Roberson pointed out that delays in results could create lengthier waiting periods before cases go to trial.
“All the labs were pretty overloaded with evidence anyways, but now you’re cutting out three labs. So, all those agencies that were going to those three labs are going to be going to the same other places, and it’s going to overload those other places even more,” Roberson said.
Cleburne County Investigator Michael Gore also noted it might interfere with the ability to have expert DFS witnesses at criminal drug trials when they are needed, something that is relatively easy to arrange now, with the McClellan facility so close.
Local agencies will be competing with other law enforcement agencies across the state for those expert witnesses’ time when the local lab closes, officials said.
Lengthy road trips, waiting periods for evidence results and trials are a concern for Gore, but he’s more worried about how his agency will process crime scenes when the McClellan lab closes.
Another way DFS hopes to save money in the face of budget cuts, Sparks said, is by discontinuing any crime scene processing. That was one of the services the state agency routinely provided to smaller law enforcement agencies who do not have workers trained in processing and collecting evidence from crime scenes. Crime scene processing involves taking photographs of locations where crimes are suspected to have occurred, dusting for fingerprints and collecting blood, hair and tissue samples and other evidence.
DFS crime scene processing will most likely end with the closing of the labs this summer, Sparks said.
Mark Hopwood, director of six employees at the McClellan lab, said one of his employees’ main duties was to assist law-enforcement agencies across a nine-county area in crime scene processing.
Without that help, Gore said, he doesn’t know what the Cleburne County Sheriff’s Office will do.
“They helped us on numerous crimes, anywhere from a quadruple murder several years ago to a recent … crime scene related to an infant being abused,” Gore said. “That’s going to put a real hard strain on us.”
Bush also said Weaver police have traditionally requested DFS services in crime scene processing on major cases in the past.
In the future, Bush plans to call on other local agencies with greater CSI resources to help the Weaver crime scene processor when he needs it.
Bentley said it’s a possibility that Anniston CSI would begin to help out surrounding agencies when they needed it.
Either way, Hopwood noted, law-enforcement agencies will have to make a lot of adjustments when he and his employees are transferred out of McClellan.
“That’s going to be the biggest thing: How it affects those guys,” Hopwood said.
Contact Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele at 256-235-3562.