State crime lab improves processing for drug, toxicology cases

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 273 views 

The Arkansas State Crime Laboratory opened a satellite office within a 44,100-square-foot building in Lowell that includes the headquarters of Arkansas State Police Troop L. The lab opened Oct. 1.

The Arkansas State Crime Laboratory opened in October a 10,000-square-foot satellite office in Lowell that has contributed to improved efficiency for not only law enforcement agencies in Northwest Arkansas but also for the crime lab in Little Rock.

The new office is within a 44,100-square-foot building at 1120 W. Monroe Ave. (Highway 264) that also includes the headquarters of Arkansas State Police Troop L, all aspects of driver’s license testing, and offices for state police investigators. The Arkansas State Police and Arkansas State Crime Laboratory are divisions of the Arkansas Department of Public Safety.

The $14 million building officially opened Jan. 24, but the crime lab moved in before then and opened there Oct. 1. The building, which sits on 25 acres, is assigned about 70 law enforcement and civilian employees.

The crime lab in Lowell exclusively handles drug and toxicology work for law enforcement agencies. Still, it recently started to accept evidence for homicide and sexual assault cases, said Kermit Channell, executive director for the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory. Scientists won’t process that evidence at the lab in Lowell, but they will receive it. And crime lab staff will transport it to the lab in Little Rock for processing.

“Inevitably, what that does is it allows law enforcement to actually stay in their region of the state and stay in their communities to do what they need to do … policing on the streets in their communities,” Channell said. “That’s something that we’re doing now because we want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to benefit law enforcement up there as well. The transport service allows them to not have to waste a whole day coming to Little Rock to deliver evidence.”

Channell described the new lab as “a lab of necessity.”

“With the opioid crisis and prescription drug abuse in general and illicit drug use, it’s an epidemic,” he said. “Arkansas hasn’t been able to avoid what’s going on on the national stage. Probably 36% of all the drug and [toxicology] cases for the entire state are coming from Northwest Arkansas. It’s a big chunk of all the cases that are coming from that region.”

Since the lab in Lowell opened in October, area agencies have submitted evidence for drug and toxicology cases there instead of having to drive to Little Rock. Before it opened, lab chemists and toxicologists drove from Little Rock to Northwest Arkansas to testify in drug cases in the area. He explained in some misdemeanor cases in which a chemist was called to testify, the chemist would drive to the courtroom only to find out the defendant had taken a plea deal before the hearing.

“It was a huge thing for us to be able to maximize our manpower, if you will, to keep people on the bench here in Little Rock,” Channell said. “Of course, opening up the facility there [in Lowell], it’s going to drastically affect how we do our business as far as doing our drug cases.”

SHIFTING WORKLOAD
“Originally, I was thinking that this lab is going to greatly help Northwest Arkansas, which is a true statement. But the reality is, it helps every other county in the state as well because we do our work more efficiently and get our drug cases, let’s say to Crittenden County, a lot quicker since we just shifted the workload to another region of the state,” he added.

The Lowell lab handled 500 drug cases in January, and he said those are 500 cases that will no longer have to be processed at the lab in Little Rock. Law enforcement agencies are not restricted from using the lab based on proximity, but the lab is expected to serve agencies as far south as Sebastian County and as far east as Baxter County.

Kermit Channell

Since October, the Lowell lab has processed more than 1,500 drug and toxicology cases, Channell said. The Lowell lab has six scientists and two evidence technicians. He said another chemist will likely be added to the lab after receiving training in Little Rock. The Lowell lab has space for eight more chemists and toxicologists, he said.

The new lab also has impacted the turnaround time for evidence to be processed and reports given to law enforcement. In the past, he said cases had taken between eight and nine months from when the lab received evidence from law enforcement until when it provided them with a report. The turnaround time has nearly been cut in half — to between four and five months. Channell said the turnaround time goal is 30 to 60 days.

“That’s an achievable goal,” he said. “That’s kind of where we want to be, and … having the Lowell laboratory up there, here the major full-service lab in Little Rock, and also we have a satellite lab in Hope, which just does drug chemistry, I think we’re going to be able to meet that goal.”

He doesn’t expect another lab will be needed.

“I hope I’m right with that because if I turn out to be wrong, that means our drug problem, in general, is starting to even escalate to more than we care to think,” he said.

STATE POLICE HEADQUARTERS
In 2011, the state purchased the 25-acre site on which the new Troop L headquarters and the crime lab were built. Turn Key Construction Management of Fort Smith was the general contractor.

Personnel started to occupy the offices in the new building as they received approval from state building services and were accepted from the contractor, said Bill Sadler, public information officer for Arkansas State Police.

“All of that was completed toward the end of the year of 2019, and we began full-service operations by getting our computer networks up and running, the radio systems up and running in early 2020,” he said. “It was a very intricate process because you couldn’t just flip and switch and say, ‘OK, we’re open for business.’

“The criminal division has a records management system that is unique to felony investigations. You have a computer system that is unique to the highway patrol, and the motor vehicle crash investigation reports that are generated and the violator citations that are unique to highway patrol. You have the crimes against children division, which is a cooperative between the Department of Human Services and the Arkansas State Police, that have their operating platform. It was a very difficult process there at the end to bring all this under one operating system.”

The building allowed for the consolidation of the leased buildings for driver’s licenses testing and commercial driver’s license testing. The new testing facility has a waiting area for families or friends of those taking their exams, and people taking the written test have more privacy as the computers on which they take the test are spaced further apart. The new building also replaced the former troop headquarters in Springdale.

The former headquarters wasn’t large enough to host highway trooper meetings and didn’t have enough room for training sessions, Sadler said. Now, the highway troopers of Troop L, which comprises Benton, Carroll, Madison and Washington counties, can all meet together, if needed. And state police investigators as far south as Scott County and as far east as Carroll County also use the new building. Before the new building opened, the troopers met at the City Administration Building in Springdale.

“When there is a joint operation between the criminal investigation division and Troop L, we can have them operate with their command centers under one roof,” Sadler said. “We’ve never had that before.”

The building also includes a service area to allow for state troopers to bring their patrol vehicles there for maintenance, Sadler said. Other troops, such as Troop I in Harrison and Troop H in Fort Smith, can use the service area or host training meetings there, rather than driving to Little Rock for this.

“It is truly a one-stop-shop for law enforcement and the public now that has never existed in the fastest-growing area of the state,” Sadler said. “You had to go to two or three different places to get what you might need, and now the public is better served, law enforcement is better served. And we were glad we were able to do this not only for the law enforcement side of Northwest Arkansas but for the residents of Northwest Arkansas.”

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