Monday, April 16, 2012

Conceits of city, county pols create competing crime-lab concepts

In Houston, the Harris County Commissioners Court and the City Council are missing a huge opportunity to collaborate on a new, independent crime lab, letting partisan and personal differences interfere with the best interests of the public. The city is moving forward with its own crime lab while the county just broke ground on a separate, new facility, the Houston Chronicle recently reported ("County breaks ground on forensics lab," April 11) with prospects for collaboration unlikely:
The county's move to expand its lab comes as city leaders look at plans to spin off Houston's troubled crime lab. Mayor Annise Parker has proposed removing the city's crime lab from the Houston Police Department and placing it under an appointed board.

Parker has said she welcomes county participation in her plan, but that seems unlikely.

County Judge Ed Emmett has called the idea a "nonstarter."
The news came on the heels of a report last month describing the city's vision for a new crime lab ("Parker crime lab plan would cost more," March 21), which may cost up to 20% more to operate than keeping it at the police department. It would be run by:
an independent local government corporation, a hybrid of a nonprofit organization and government agency. The corporation would be funded by the city, and the mayor would nominate and Council would confirm its board of directors. The board would hire and fire employees and oversee the lab's operations.

On Monday, Icken and Feldman unveiled what the board would look like. It would have five members: someone who understands the judicial system, someone with law enforcement experience, a criminal defense attorney, a forensics expert and someone with a finance background. ...
The plan does not preclude the city from joining forces with the county, which plans to build its own expanded forensics center at the Texas Medical Center. If the city and county were to cooperate through the local government corporation, Icken said, Commissioners Court would appoint two of the five board members and the city would appoint two. Commissioners Court and City Council would jointly appoint the chairman, just as they do for the Port of Houston Authority.
Incredibly frustrating. Most pols at least offer lip service to the reality that working together would produce a better outcome, but lip service is all it is. The politicians involved appear unable to remove ego and an historic turf-war mentality from the process, and the predictable result is politicization, duplication, waste and higher costs for taxpayers. There are circumstances where rivalry and turf battles improve outcomes, but this is not one of them.


Anonymous said...

Normally I'd agree--they need to put down the egos and work together. But in this case, why in the world would any entity that wanted a good crime lab associate it with the City of Houston and its leadership in any way? The former HPD chief was defeated in his race for DA, largely because he was a Democrat but had the issues been vetted it would have been shown that he was in charge when the crime lab issues came to light. And now he's on city council? With a vote that still could affect a joint crime lab? With an electorate that put him there and sharing the same partisan politics as the current mayor?

Hell no.


Alex Bunin said...

To be clear, what they broke ground on was a genetics lab that will be part of the National Human Performance Center run by UT. The Medical Examiner will collaborate and do genetic testing there, but the County's "Regional Crime Lab" is still on paper.

Anonymous said...

It strikes me that there may be some issues of signficant substance behind the failure to reach agreement.

The fact of the matter is that model proposed by the city in regard to oversight is a new, untested model. I can think of no public forensic laboratory nationally or internationally that is organized this way. On the other hand, the current county management model has been used for a long time in Harris County, and is commonly used elsewhere.

The difference between the models is that in the county model the laboratory operations are unambiguously managed by scientists. However, under the proposed city model, laboratory operations would be managed by a board that is almost exclusively composed of non-scientists.

The city model seems to be replicating the fundamental problem with police management of laboratories, which is that the managers are unable to understand in sufficient detail what is going on in the organization they are trying to manage.

Anonymous said...

However, under the proposed city model, laboratory operations would be managed by a board that is almost exclusively composed of non-scientists.

And non-lawyers! Worst of both worlds.


Jean Val Jean said...

Anyone that has ever been charged with a crime might prefer some separation of control from the DA's office or police agency. In that sense, the county model fails like it has always failed, no one in the know believing it to provide an unbiased look at evidence.

The city's old model was much akin to how the county does things, the difference being that it was on a much more massive scale since the county refuses to process evidence that comes from cases inside the city regardless of it also being in the county. The new city model is several steps ahead of the game in removing undue influence by those in the criminal justice system from the equation when it comes to managing the work.

It would have been great if both agencies could have set aside politics for the betterment of society, especially the pocketbook of the taxpayers residing in both jurisdictions, but as long as each are dominated by different political parties it will never happen.