Nearly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina inundated the New Orleans Police Department’s crime lab, city officials are finalizing plans to build a new lab inside a five-floor building across the street from police headquarters that also will serve as a repository for evidence and court records.
The $19 million project, tentatively slated for completion in early 2017, is expected to restore a DNA testing division crippled by the storm, ending an arrangement in which the city has employed its own analysts to work on DNA from local cases at the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab in Baton Rouge.
Construction of the 64,000-square-foot facility, to be known as the New Orleans Criminal Evidence & Processing Complex, is scheduled to begin in September, city officials said last week.
The complex will be built at 2761 Gravier St., a 0.8-acre plot that now serves as a parking lot between the District Attorney’s Office and the Criminal District Courthouse.
City officials herald the project as a long-awaited centralization of several components of the criminal justice system whose destruction in Katrina often has been overlooked.
In addition to housing a crime lab, the complex will serve as the new home of the city’s oft-maligned Central Evidence & Property Section, which, like the crime lab, occupied temporary trailers after the storm before relocating to leased property.
The building also will have designated storage space for both the Clerk of Criminal Court’s Office and Municipal Court.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved new funding for the complex in March, bringing its total contribution to about $14.2 million under a law that allows the city to combine recovery dollars from various losses into so-called “alternate projects.”
Other funding sources include the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District, which will cover $2 million of the construction, plus federal grant dollars and $200,000 in state capital outlay money, said Brad Howard, a City Hall spokesman.
The old crime lab, which eventually was demolished after taking on 4 feet of floodwater, stood at Tulane Avenue and South Gayoso Street, two blocks from the courthouse. The Police Department, meanwhile, stored evidence in the basement of its South Broad Street headquarters, which was similarly devastated by the storm.
The new complex will be somewhat elevated in an effort to avoid future flood damage. The most sensitive — and expensive — crime lab equipment will be stored on the fourth and fifth floors, while the NOPD’s vault for evidence and firearms will occupy the third floor.
“All of it’s going to be high and dry,” said Cmdr. Darryl Albert, who oversees the crime lab and evidence storage for the NOPD. “It’s going to be state-of-the-art.”
The new complex will eliminate a time-consuming cycle in which evidence, for the past several years, has been shuttled from a facility on Earhart Boulevard to a leased crime lab at the UNO Research & Technology Park, Albert said. The lakefront lab conducts an array of testing, including forensic drug chemistry and advanced firearms analysis, but it is not equipped to test DNA evidence.
Those samples are sent instead to the State Police Crime Lab, which compares the evidence against the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a national criminal database. Samples stemming from homicide and sexual assault cases are sent to that lab on a daily basis if necessary, Albert said, and generally take precedence over evidence related to property crimes.
“Because of the huge influx going to Baton Rouge, we have to prioritize when we can fit (DNA evidence from other crimes) in between the homicides and sexual assaults,” Albert said. “Once this new facility is up and running here, we plan on hiring additional DNA analysts and doing it right here. That was the idea, to have it right here at our home base.”
The Police Department already is seeking accreditation for its DNA division, Albert said — a “daunting task” that’s required in order for the lab to participate in the national CODIS program.
Although the city’s crime lab was established in 1967, its DNA operation had just gotten off the ground a few years before Katrina.
One of the largest challenges it faced at the time was retaining analysts, who worked under a “rigid structure for salary and job description,” said Anne Montgomery, a DNA consultant hired by the city in 2001 who helped the program receive accreditation. The city’s DNA lab, she said, quickly “became a training ground for other labs.”
“As soon as I qualified an analyst and got them trained, they would be hired away by other agencies or laboratories,” Montgomery said. “It’s always nice to have (DNA testing) in your own backyard, but it’s no easy task to get the right people in there and pay them the right amount of money to retain them.”
While it remains unclear whether the new DNA operation will be more successful in that regard, the construction of a new crime lab would mark an accomplishment that for several years seemed out of reach, due in large part to a lack of resources. With 80 percent of the city flooded and police officers working out of their cars, crime lab employees struggled in the aftermath of Katrina to keep even a skeletal operation online.
“It was chaos,” said Anna Duggar, the director of the forensic chemistry program at Loyola University, who worked for the lab at the time and later led it from 2007 until 2010. “The lab was wiped out.”
Before moving into a classroom-style trailer, the lab for several months was reduced to a table with a couple of laptop computers at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, which served as the department’s temporary base after the storm. The lab received invaluable assistance from the FBI and the sheriff’s offices in Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes, among others, Duggar said.
In that light, Albert said, the NOPD intends to conduct forensic testing for neighboring parishes once its new lab is up and running.
“Just like we received help,” he said, “we don’t want to turn our back on anyone else.”
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