DURHAM — Durham County is discussing contracting with the state to hire three crime lab analysts to work on local cases, as well as maybe building its own lab.
Supporters say the program could reduce the time it takes to analyze alcohol, drug and blood samples and cut the time jail inmates must wait for trial.
In a presentation to the Board of County Commissioners last week, Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley said the State Bureau of Investigation lab has a backlog exceeding six months. Without the backlog, most routine analysis would take about a week.
Local funds of an estimated $186,000 would be used to fund the three new positions, with the SBI conducting the hiring and bearing the equipment and facility costs.
As far as the county building its own lab, the county is considering two options: a blood-alcohol-content-only lab or a full lab at the future jail annex that probably won’t be built for five to 10 years.
The county first began discussing the possibility of a crime lab about a year ago.
It appeared that the county might receive a Governor’s Highway Safety Program grant of more than $900,000 from the state to fund a blood-alcohol-content-only lab for Durham, but now that has dwindled to about $524,000 available for one-year expenses.
Worsley said the lab would require about $250,000 a year in local money to keep running.
County staff has concluded that it would be cheaper to hire Durham-specific analysts in Raleigh.
The third option, of building a full, multidisciplinary lab at a jail annex that is expected to be needed in five to 10 years, remains open even if the county decides to contract with the SBI to hire the three analysts now. The county would look at regional partnerships for the lab.
Commissioner Ellen Reckhow noted that 12 years ago, commissioners visited Wake’s city-county lab. She said she was amazed by the amount of work that could be done in a small space, what she estimated as the size of two storage closets.
Commissioner Fred Foster asked about the possibility of working with neighboring labs.
Worsley said Wake is the only nearby county with its own lab, and it has rejected requests to collaborate.
Commissioners also raised questions about how to keep the contracted SBI employees accountable to Durham and not drawn away on other cases once they have been hired.
Worsley said that would be addressed by the contract to be drawn up.
Worsley also added that the SBI has been approved for 19 new lab positions, and negotiations would address how that might affect Durham’s backlog.
County Manager Mike Ruffin said he would look to the city of Durham to help with funding.
A visibly shaken Commissioner Brenda Howerton, who said she had just come from visiting a child in the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head, said, “We’re all responsible for what’s happening in our community. ... We can’t separate the city’s responsibility from the county’s.”