Small police departments fear closing Allegheny County crime lab

McKees Rocks Police Chief Robert Cifrulak does not not need directions to the Allegheny County Crime Lab. Neither do his officers.

They make the trip to the Strip District lab about four times a week, he said, transporting evidence such as confiscated drugs and blood tests for DUI cases.

But if the Allegheny County Crime Lab closes, as county Executive Rich Fitzgerald warns it could without state funding, that short trip could turn into a much longer journey. The next-closest crime lab, run by the Pennsylvania State Police, is in Greensburg, 26 miles from Pittsburgh and easily an hour's drive from McKees Rocks.

"It's ludicrous to say we'll just go to Greensburg," Chief Cifrulak said.

And it's an outcome that elected officials and law enforcement officials alike have warned could have serious outcomes for public safety in Allegheny County — especially for smaller police forces, such as McKees Rocks, where sometimes only three officers are on duty at a time.

Because chain of custody is so important in legal proceedings, police departments cannot hire a courier system to transport items to Greensburg. The constitutional right to a speedy trial also prevents departments from waiting for evidence to accumulate before making their submission trips.

"It's a game changer," Chief Cifrulak said, predicting that the whole process — from making arrests to holding hearings to bringing people to trial — would be "slowed to a crawl."

"This is nuts-and-bolts stuff that we need, we absolutely need," he said. "This is how you fight crime."

Last week, the Gold Room of the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown, was filled with elected officials and law enforcement representatives assembled for a joint Senate and House Democratic policy hearing about the future of funding for the county crime lab, which provides services such as tests involving toxicology, latent prints and firearms. The lab received more than 19,000 evidence submissions and performed more than 100,000 tests in 2013.

State funding was $7.5 million for the crime lab and county police investigative services in the early 2000s, but dropped to zero by fiscal year 2011-12. Mr. Fitzgerald, his eye on holding the line on property taxes, said recently that the county needs state funding to continue running the $4.65 million crime lab.

He's asking Harrisburg for $10 million, for both the crime lab and police investigative services. In testimony last week, he described how closure of Allegheny County's lab would add costs and create delays in processing evidence.

If the Pittsburgh police had to take evidence to Greensburg, rather than the Strip District, the cost of 6,760 trips in 2013 would be about $423,784, according to county estimates.

For the Pittsburgh police department, frequent Greensburg trips would cause difficulties, city Public Safety Director Stephen Bucar testified last week. But Mt. Lebanon Police Chief Coleman McDonough, who testified on behalf of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association, said the impact would be especially severe on small police forces, with many of Allegheny County’s departments listing 10 or fewer officers on their rosters. 

Take Reserve, for example.

Chief Fred Boory Jr.’s department is made up of three full-time and four part-time officers. Often, he said, there is just one person on duty per shift. If there's evidence that needs to be submitted, that officer will drive the four miles to the Strip District to drop it off at the crime lab. It's a run that officers make three or four times a week, Chief Boory said.

If that lab closes, the trip to Greensburg would bring multiple expenses: overtime, turnpike fees, and gas, to name a few.

He's concerned, too, about the balance that would be struck between making sure evidence is quickly submitted to meet legal requirements, and making sure his community is protected.

"If there's only one officer working there, that's going to leave my township unprotected from the time that they leave here, until the time that they return," he said.

It's not just the very small departments that are worried.

In Robinson, which has 29 officers, Chief Dale Vietmeier is also concerned about closure of the crime lab.

"It would be terrible, to be honest with you," said Robinson Chief Dale Vietmeier, who has 29 officers,  of having to drive to Greensburg. He said he would be concerned about getting evidence back in time for court proceedings.

For the crime labs run by the Pennsylvania State Police, backlogs vary, according to spokeswoman Maria Finn. For DNA, the backlog is 111 days from submission to the final report, she said, though priority statuses for cases such as homicide and rape can expedite turnaround time.

As for what would happen if all of Allegheny County's work were taken over by the state police, she said a transition would require "an in-depth assessment/evaluation." The 2013-14 budget for the Pennsylvania State Police labs is about $28.5 million, and in 2013 all seven labs received 41,122 evidence submissions, according to Ms. Finn.

A move to Greensburg also would mean losing a close relationship the Ross Police Department has formed with the local crime lab, said Det. Brian Kohlhepp, whose department made 222 submissions, often containing multiple pieces of evidence, in 2013.

Two years ago, Ross police were investigating a series of rapes in their community, and they had DNA evidence to test. Usually, DNA results come back from the county crime lab in six months or less, but Det. Kohlhepp said because of the danger to the public, Medical Examiner Karl Williams was able to return the results within a week.

"They were instrumental in us being able to file charges, and being able to arrest Arthur Henderson," said Det. Kohlhepp, referring to the man who was found guilty for raping three women at gunpoint last year.

Two years ago, when they announced their arrests, they did it from the crime lab, Det. Kohlhepp said, "just to show our appreciation."

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

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