Denton County took a step closer to opening a local crime lab Tuesday, with approval by commissioners of a partnership that would put the lab on the University of North Texas campus.
Though much work is still to be done before the lab could open, county commissioners approved a one-year agreement between UNT and the Denton County Sheriff’s Office to house the drug analysis lab on campus.
“It’s a win-win for us and a dark day for the drug culture in Denton County,” said Lt. Rick Clark.
The crime lab will be paid for by drug seizure funds, but UNT will provide the sheriff’s department with space and two graduate analysts enrolled in the graduate school in chemistry or biochemistry, according to the agreement.
“UNT will pay their salary,” Clark said. “The downside is they will only be available to us 20 hours a week. But any assistance we can get we will accept.”
The county now uses the Texas Department of Public Safety lab in Garland, but Clark said the lab is so understaffed and overloaded that the county has been facing a delay in getting back its test results.
Under the new agreement, the sheriff’s office will transport $300,000 worth of instruments and equipment to the UNT facility. Once there, officials will undergo a thorough process to obtain ISO accreditation from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board.
“It will take about a year and entail a lot of testing, both of the analysis and the equipment. It covers a wide area,” Clark said. “After we achieve that certification we will go to DPS and have them certify us as a drug enforcement lab, then we can process evidence for trials.”
Clark said the university officials’ familiarity with the rigorous certification inspections will help get the lab off the ground.
“They have the expertise in this area we lack,” Clark. “They will be working right at our side to make sure the certification process goes off without a hitch.”
Clark and UNT officials fielded questions on the proposed lab during the commissioners’ Tuesday morning meeting.
Commissioner Hugh Coleman said he thinks the lab is a good idea but questions the eventual costs.
“We obviously don’t need to reinvent the wheel if we can depend on DPS to provide us adequate services,” Coleman said. “We may want to reconsider what we can do in the future, and having a test run for a year is a good idea just to see if we can manage it with our personnel and financially afford it.”
UNT chemistry professor Guido F. Verbec said the lab is a great step for the county when looking at the bigger picture. Once the county population reaches 1 million, it will be required by the state to have its own medical examiner and facilities locally. Denton County now has population of 707,304, according to the 2012 census estimate.
“It’s a great first step in building the lab and the next steps of hopefully a long future with Denton County,” Verbec said.
He touted the educational aspect of the lab in that UNT is the first university this side of the Mississippi River with American Academy of Forensic Sciences certification. The university also offers degrees in chemistry, biology and biochemstiry with a focus on forensics.
“They can educate the next generation of forensic chemists, and Denton County gets the benefit of the lab,” Verbec said.
BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875 and via Twitter at @BjlewisDRC.