This coverage is made possible by a grant from The Saint Paul Foundation.

Minneapolis crime lab, unlike its neighbor, gets high marks

The Minneapolis Police Department has something St. Paul is only wishing it had — a crime lab accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors.

And to rub a little salt into the wound, Minneapolis was the first city in Minnesota to receive accreditation.

The Minneapolis Crime Lab has been accredited since 2009, a process that took five years and included visits by outside observers who examined every function of the lab and the work of the lab staff in detail.

“We were one of the first labs to go from no accreditation to national accreditation,” said Police Capt. Connie Leaf, commander of the Forensics Division, during an appearance Thursday before the City Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Health Committee.

That came following charges by two public defenders who challenged the labs narcotics testing.  They also questioned the training and practices of lab workers.

St. Paul’s crime lab has come under massive criticism  — and a shakeup in leadership — following charges by two public defenders who challenged the inadequacies of its narcotics testing. They also questioned the training and practices of lab workers. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has suggested the St. Paul crime lab seek the same accreditation. 

Council Member Don Samuels, who chairs the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Health Committee, said he invited Leaf to speak to give Minneapolis residents “a sense of security about how we do things.”

Accreditation did not come easily. Outside lab examiners were on hand to make sure 408 standards were met and that any deficiencies were identified. After that, lab personnel spent months making sure all operations brought into conformance with ASCLB standards. All of this had to be carefully documented.

“I knew we had a really good lab,” said Council President Barb Johnson, “so when this whole story about our neighbor’s lab surfaced, I knew we were really in good shape.”

“The chief and I refer to our lab as the little engine that can and does,” replied Leaf.  The lab is located in converted office space.

Kerstin Hammarberg, the supervisor of the police department’s Property and Evidence Unit, is responsible for all of the crime scene material officers bring in for analysis or evidence. She sits on the national board of the International Association of Property and Evidence. The organization currently does not offer accreditation but is developing such a program.

When accreditation is possible, Hammarberg said, her unit wants to be one of the first in the nation to pursue that status.

Evidence from a 1980 murder — kept stored by the Property and Evidence Unit — recently helped the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension break the case. Hammarberg said all of the paperwork and other evidence was still properly maintained in that case when it was turned over to the BCA.

She told council members her problem is space. City Hall has special secure storage spaces for narcotics, firearms, cash and jewelry. There are also two warehouses, but Hammarbers said it is not unusual for officers to bring in a room’s worth of furniture, or large pieces of automobiles.  Even large trash containers have been taken as evidence.

It all comes in, and sometimes the police must wait years for the courts to tell them when it can go out.

More good news

As long as it was to be a day of bragging, Samuels started the committee meeting with some extra good news.

There are more volunteers, more grants and more animals finding homes at the Minneapolis Animal Care and Control facility.  

A year and a half ago, the MACC had only one volunteer. Today 100 volunteers have signed up, and there is a waiting list.

In 2007, grants and cash gifts to MACC totaled $7,000. So far this year, grants and gifts have reached $100,000.

And the best news of all: In 2008, 61 percent of the animals found new homes, but so far this year, 93 percent have been successfully placed.

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