Forensics laboratory opens in D.C.

Facility will be shared by medical examiner and crime scene unit

Years of the District outsourcing forensics work, including drug and DNA analysis, came to an end Monday with the opening of the city’s $210 million Consolidated Forensics Laboratory.

The 351,000-square-foot lab, located in Southwest, is the new home for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the Metropolitan Police Department’s crime scene units and evidence control, and the new Department of Forensic Services’ crime and health labs.

“The potential that this building gives to the District of Columbia to increase, improve and expand its ability to do forensic analysis to solve crimes is just enormous,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said at an opening ceremony inside the lobby of the building. “We’ve been doing DNA analysis for a half dozen years, a lot of it in borrowed space, and we’ve also been contracting out a lot of it. And now we can build our program for DNA analysis.”

Officials touted the lab as a national model that will put the District ahead of the curve in the realm of forensics science. Max Houck, the director of the newly formed Department of Forensic Services, said he foresees the facility becoming a training ground that in the future can partner with local universities.

While Monday marked the official opening of the building, different divisions plan to move into the facility in waves, with the DNA lab the first to get settled, Mr. Houck explained as he led a tour through several unoccupied laboratories. Signs in the DNA labs warn employees not to enter rooms that have been sealed and decontaminated unless they have already submitted their own DNA samples, a precaution as employees handle evidence. The entire facility is expected to be functional by the end of the year, Mr. Houck said.

Several agencies to be consolidated at the lab have suffered from notable problems in the past, from a backlog of DNA analysis in police department cases to basic functional issues in the medical examiner’s office. As the DNA analysis lab prepares to move into the new facility this month, the division is up to date on all cases in which DNA analysis is needed, thanks to a final push to clear the backlog before the move, Mr. Houck said.

For medical examiners, who investigate approximately 3,100 deaths each year, nine window-lined autopsy bays that will contain state-of-the-art technology will provide a reprieve from problematic conditions they worked under in the past.

“The medical examiner’s space is a much needed upgrade over the previous facility,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray said. “There was a time when we were challenged just with the HVAC systems in that building.”

For the Department of Health, the facility will provide a place where scientists and health providers can study and monitor the spread of diseases within the city.

“It’s nice to know that right here in our city we can test for West Nile virus, study any unusual trends, and conduct additional research,” said Saul Levin, the director of the D.C. Department of Health.

Other floors of the building house a range of testing facilities, from a firearms testing range with foot-thick concrete walls to a drug-analysis laboratory. Bringing both drug and DNA testing back under the District’s control will significantly help the continuity of investigations.

“The co-location of MPD crime scene investigation division in this building will enable the items of evidence recovered from crime scenes and other locations to be immediately identified, processed and packaged for delivery to laboratory scientists for analysis,” police Commander Kimberly Chisley-Missouri said.

Bringing drug analysis testing back under the District’s control will also alleviate the strain currently on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which currently oversees drug testing for the department — particularly when experts are asked to testify in court.

“There have been many more requests for testimony rather than just accepting the reports,” Dr. Houck said.

As part of the move, civilian employees also will take over control of the department’s crime scene units from officers, a shift that officials said can help keep politics, or at least the appearance of it, out of the science behind lab analysis and results.

“Police have enough to worry about let alone the burden of all the science,” Dr. Houck said. “It’s a much more effective allocution. It means everyone gets to do what they do best.”

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