A long-awaited and much-needed crime lab is closer to becoming a reality for Denton County, officials say.
For about a year, many county officials have been working with the University of North Texas to create a drug analysis laboratory at the school’s facilities.
Lt. Rick Clark, who has spent the past four years working criminal investigations at the Denton County Sheriff’s Office, believes the county having its own laboratory will be a “great asset,” not only for surrounding agencies but also for the North Texas region.
Currently, it can take anywhere from four months to a year for a drug sample to be processed and returned to the county, Clark said.
“We currently send our samples to the [Texas] Department of Public Safety Crime Lab in Garland for processing and they are severely backed up,” he said. “The workers are overworked as it is, so this will not only take a load off them but expedite our investigations.”
The lab would essentially not cost the sheriff’s office much at all, Sheriff Will Travis said.
“The university would provide the facility and some student staff in exchange for us hosting the lab onsite,” Travis said. “It’s going to be a great collaboration.”
UNT chemistry professor Guido F. Verbeck said only two students will be working in the lab, and they will have either bachelor’s or master’s degrees in chemistry or biochemistry.
“Not just anyone will be allowed to work at the drug lab,” he said.
The students will be trained chemists and will sign a two- to three-year commitment to earn the funds needed for their research to graduate, Verbeck said.
A deputy sheriff with the proper credentials will oversee the lab and the two assistants.
The bulk of the evidence, Clark said, would still be stored in a property room at the sheriff’s office, but trace amounts will be brought over for analysis by the sheriff’s deputy.
“The room will be secure. But should a student get into the evidence and take something, the amount of the drug would be miniscule,” Clark said.
The most commonly confiscated drug in Denton County is methamphetamine, officials said.
Talks about having a full-blown crime lab — processing fingerprints and hosting their own medical examiner’s site — are still a ways off, Clark said.
Troy Taylor, the county’s chief death investigator, said Denton County would have to reach a population of 1 million before it can create its own medical examiner’s office. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the last population estimate for the county was more than 700,000 in 2012.
“This lab will be like our trial run,” Clark said. “We have come to the point where finally all the stars have aligned. We want to make sure we go in smoothly before starting anything too big that we can’t handle right away.”
Verbeck said he was brought on to help make sure the lab is properly accredited since he has a working knowledge and background of what it takes to set up such a project. He has worked alongside many governmental and investigative agencies to help develop instruments to make first responders’ jobs easier out in the field.
The first year of the lab analysis program will be somewhat of a test phase, Verbeck said.
While working to obtain ISO accreditation from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board, the lab will be sent blind studies throughout the year to make sure it is able to properly test specimens.
“These will run parallel with other crime labs,” Verbeck said.
The lab will have a set of standard protocols in place and, since it’s being built from scratch, the county wants to make sure its lab is based on integrity and know-how.
“There’s plenty of work to be done,” Verbeck said. “Collin, Tarrant and Dallas counties are all working alongside us to make sure we are successful in kicking off our first phase of the lab.”
With the new lab in place, county officials said they would first request the backlog of narcotics cases on hold at the DPS lab in Garland to start operating at a higher level of efficiency.
“Initially, we would just focus on our cases here [at the sheriff’s office],” Clark said. “Ultimately, we would assist not only countywide agencies but some of the smaller surrounding counties like Wise and Cooke.”
Processing evidence quicker will help the district attorney’s office with its cases more than anything else.
First Assistant District Attorney Jamie Beck said any relief they can get will be a good thing.
“Our office cannot dispose of a case until we have the lab result,” she said.
Clark said everyone on board is very excited they will soon be able to offer something critically needed in the county.
“The DA will be the greater beneficiary of the lab, and we are grateful we are now in the position to offer this service in cooperation with UNT,” he said.
Officials associated with helping the lab come to fruition said they are still drafting a memorandum of understanding to bring to the Commissioners Court for final approval.
MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.