Six officers — two each from Anniston and Jacksonville police departments and the Cleburne County Sheriff’s Office — took part Wednesday in the first marijuana evidence processing class from the Calhoun/Cleburne County Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force at the McClellan campus of Jacksonville State University.
“You can sit and look at pictures all day long,” said Mark Hopwood, a crime scene investigator with the Task Force and instructor for the class. Hopwood led a lecture last week, but Wednesday was more hands-on as officers examined marijuana evidence.
“That’s where real proficiency testing comes in,” he said. “Then they actually go out there and do it.”
The class Wednesday was the first step in getting local agencies to handle their own evidence in misdemeanor drug cases, a time- and cost-saving measure aimed at limiting the burden of evidence processing at the state level and more quickly getting misdemeanor cases into the courts with evidence.
Since the closing of the state Department of Forensic Science’s McClellan laboratory in July, local agencies have had to rely on a lab in Birmingham to handle all of their drug testing — a lengthy process that can back up evidence for trials for months.
“The problem is now, by law you have so many days to get evidence for a misdemeanor case,” said Jacksonville Police Chief Tommy Thompson. “It’s time we learn how to handle the misdemeanor cases.”
The task force’s supervisor, Randall Sanders, said the training is as beneficial to Department of Forensic Science as it is to local agencies.
“Just like all of us right now, their budget has been cut,” Sanders said. “This should help alleviate some of the issues so cases there don’t get so backlogged.”
In some cases, evidence processing at the state has taken close to a year before reports could be sent back to the local agencies.
“You can be waiting 10 months or more,” Hopwood said. “We’re trying to help them help themselves; take care of these cases yourself.”
With the training, the task force is also aiming to help themselves out, too.
Hopwood, who previously worked for DFS at the McClellan lab, took a job with the task force last summer after the lab closed its doors. In that time he has become the go-to guy for crime scene investigations and drug testing for local municipalities and counties. If more agencies are trained to handle misdemeanor cases, he said, his expertise can be focused on other cases.
Initially, agencies got away from doing their own testing when the McClellan lab was readily available. Anniston police Chief Layton McGrady said it was about 10 years ago that the department stopped doing its own testing.
“It got to be time-consuming,” McGrady said. “But with statewide closings, it’s something we need to get back into.”
Anniston, unlike other agencies, has the equipment in place to get back into testing. Thompson said while the class is the first step in getting his Jacksonville officers trained to handle the cases, equipment to do the testing is still needed.
“The first thing is just to get caught up to speed,” Thompson said. “Then we’ll find out exactly what we need.”
Sanders said the class will be offered again and other agencies have expressed interest in getting their departments trained to handle these types of cases.
And the more agencies that can help themselves, the better everyone can handle the statewide budget cuts.
“The goal is to hopefully help benefit everyone included in the process,” Sanders said. “From the local agencies, to the court system to the Department of Forensic Science.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star