The Houston Police Department has unveiled a new crime lab in a move to speed up service and shed its scandal-ridden past linked to a backlog of rape kits.
Several years ago, police and city officials started the process of untangling the lab from the department and into an independent agency, the Houston Forensic Science Center.
In 2014, the department transferred management of its crime lab to the center even though the physical lab remained in the Police Department's downtown headquarters.
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Authorities said the new facility was revealed earlier this week and features state-of-the-art labs, ventilation systems and a consolidated design, the Houston Chronicle reported.
Dr. Peter Stout, the center's president, said the 83,000-square-foot space will serve as a model for the rest of the U.S.
"To actually address issues of a crime laboratory and fundamentally change how a crime lab is run, is not easy," Stout said.
The shift will also underscore that the center is truly independent, officials noted.
"It's great to see a scientist leading scientists, instead of necessarily a cop leading scientists," Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said. "But most importantly, that separation, I think it better positions us moving forward."
As the center has struggled to overcome the smeared reputation of the department's crime lab, it has also drawn criticism.
In January 2018, the lab fired an analyst who had shredded case notes from a homicide investigation. An April 2017 audit showed mistakes by a crime scene investigator in 65 cases, including 26 homicides, which hindered those prosecutions. A year prior, investigators mistakenly contaminated evidence in three cases.
And after a fatal January drug raid by Houston police narcotics officers, crime scene technicians left pieces of evidence behind at the small home in Pecan Park that was the scene of the raid.
Nevertheless, police and criminal justice reform supporters said they believe the new lab will increase the public's confidence in its independence and overall mission.
"This is such an advance from when I was a prosecutor," said Elsa Alcala, a former judge who retired in 2018 from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and is now a board member of the Texas Innocence Project. "The old lab felt like a dungeon. It's wonderful that you have separation between police and scientists, so lab personnel don't feel beholden to police. The fact it's independent is a real step forward."