In July 2015, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office sent a sexual assault case to the state crime lab for DNA testing. Almost a year later, the sheriff’s office still had not received results.
In Arapahoe County, the sheriff’s office submitted two sexual assault cases for analysis in February 2015, two more the following May, another two that June, and numerous others on a consistent basis since then. None has yet received results from the CBI.
The wait for DNA analysis — which data shows can take from four months to more than 1½ years in some cases — has spurred the Douglas and Arapahoe county sheriff’s offices and the Aurora Police Department to pool their resources to build a regional crime lab.
“There are not a lot of opportunities to do high-value, regional projects,” Douglas County Commissioner Jill Repella said.
But the regional crime lab is one because it will serve nearly 1 million people, she said. The combined population of Douglas County and Arapahoe County, where most of Aurora is located, is approximately 900,000.
“To pull resources together for a regional project like this is astounding,” Repella said.
A nationwide backlog
The delay in DNA and other forensic evidence testing is not unique to Colorado.
The National Institute of Justice defines a forensic biology or DNA backlogged case as one that has not been completed within 30 days of receipt, although each independent laboratory has its own definition, according to the institute’s website. Because of this, it is difficult to determine the exact number of backlogged cases throughout the nation.
However, data gathered in fiscal year 2010, as state and local units of government applied for funding under the Forensic DNA Backlog Reduction Program, showed a national backlog of 111,647 DNA cases as of the end of 2009. But the number changes daily, the NIJ reports, as new cases are submitted and closed every day.
“Across the country, state labs are overrun,” Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said. “It’s very important that we think about this as a public safety concern.”
The need for timely DNA testing is crucial, law enforcement officials say, to furthering investigations and solving cases that include homicide, sexual assault, auto theft, burglary, suspicious deaths, cold case homicides and more.
The sheriff’s offices in Arapahoe and Douglas counties and the Aurora Police Department each operate their own crime labs, but none has the capability to do DNA testing, according to a feasibility study on the regional lab.
DNA analysis can make the difference between taking criminals off the streets and letting them move in society for the 18 months it might take to receive results from the state lab, Spurlock said.
Sometimes, DNA analysis can be what clears an individual’s name, Arapahoe County Sheriff David Walcher said. The sheriff’s office at times has cause to arrest someone before DNA evidence can be analyzed, he said, which means an innocent person could remain in jail until DNA results are available to exonerate them.
Developing a regional lab
Two years in the making, the Regional Forensics Crime Laboratory, estimated to cost about $13.7 million, will also serve the City of Centennial, which contracts with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.
Centennial Mayor Cathy Noon said the city was immediately supportive of the project.
“I think what we were really astonished by is how little DNA actually gets tested and how long it takes,” she said. “If there are additional tools that our sheriff’s department that we contract with needs, we support that — absolutely.”
Other municipalities also may be able to use the lab’s services, both sheriff’s offices said.
They intend to allow municipalities within their counties to submit evidence for processing at the regional lab for a fee. Details of those terms are still in the works, Douglas County Undersheriff Holly Nicholson-Kluth said.
The three entities expect to finalize an intergovernmental agreement by late October. Design plans are scheduled to be near completion in December. Groundbreaking on the facility, which would be built along Douglas County’s northern corridor near the Arapahoe County border, could take place in the summer of 2017.
“The public certainly has an expectation that we use science to the best of our ability,” Walcher said. “Well, we’re going to start doing that in our jurisdiction.”
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation runs the state forensics lab and has a regional office in Arvada. It was originally established to analyze forensic evidence for small law jurisdictions without their own crime labs.
Over time, larger law enforcement departments’ need for assistance has grown, particularly with the development of DNA analytics, according to Spurlock. “They do great work, but they serve the entire state of Colorado.”
The CBI could not be reached for comment. The Aurora Police Department declined to comment while discussions surrounding the lab are ongoing.
Besides the backlog of cases, logistical issues exist with relying on the CBI lab, according to a study commissioned by Douglas County to look at the feasibility of a regional facility.
The round trip for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office to Arvada can take two to three hours, depending on traffic and lines to submit evidence at the facility, the feasibility study found.
The number of items that can be submitted for analysis also is limited, the study said, which means law enforcement can’t submit all the evidence they need evaluated.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office crime lab can conduct crime scene investigations, drug chemistry analysis, latent print evaluation and processing, and shoe and tire print examinations. It also can photograph evidence and attend autopsies. The Arapahoe County and Aurora crime labs perform similarly but not identically to Douglas County’s.
But they all rely on the CBI to conduct firearms and tool-mark analysis, trace evidence and DNA analysis.
The new regional lab will provide the departments with more control over casework prioritization, the amount of evidence analyzed and the logistics of submitting pieces for analysis, Nicholson-Kluth said.
“We will solve more crimes,” Walcher said, “and we will solve more crimes quicker than ever before.”
The game plan
In August, the three partners produced a strategic business plan for the regional crime lab.
The land acquisition, design and constructions costs are estimated at $13.7 million — a rough estimate, Nicholson-Kluth said. An official project cost should be available in December once design plans are completed.
Douglas County will handle land acquisition and constructions costs, largely through its Justice Center Sales and Use Tax, which has twice been approved by voters to help pay for capital needs of the county Justice Center.
Once the facility is built, Arapahoe County and Aurora will begin contributing larger shares.
Aurora will pay for the information technology infrastructure and support staff. Aurora and Arapahoe County will provide most of the staff and specialized equipment. The lab is expected to staff 41 positions, a combination of existing and new.
One-time project costs (such as construction), and ongoing costs (such as operations and maintenance) will be funded through a variety of sources. Arapahoe County’s Law Enforcement Authority fund will help support the project, Walcher said. Arapahoe County’s contract with Centennial will also contribute financial support.
After two years of work by a team of about 20 people, Spurlock said he is excited to see the plan becoming a reality.
“The people of Arapahoe and Douglas counties have officials that are working together to solve a problem,” he said. “We have found a way to work together and to develop a plan that allows us to provide services fairly and equitably.”