Regional crime lab loses money for tests

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Like many state-funded facilities, the Southeast Missouri Regional Crime Lab in Cape Girardeau is facing unwelcome budget cuts, which could eliminate jobs, delay test results and spark the retirement of its director.

The crime lab handles about 4,000 cases a year for 21 counties. Its director, Dr. Robert Briner, got news of this fiscal year's $40,000 budget cut at the end of the last legislative session. The lab's budget in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, was $325,000, which came from state and local governments.

Criminal suspects sitting in jail cells and crime victims and their families will suffer longer waits for test results if the lab can't hire needed staff to curb the backlog of cases, he said.

"The drug cases will be worked, they may be done slower, but they'll be worked," Briner said. "What's going to be put back are the rapes and homicides where they don't have a suspect and nobody's hollering because the victim is dead. These dollars that are being cut are really bodies."

Retirement option

Briner has spent 33 years with the lab as its first director, but he calls the current period a "trying time." He's eligible for retirement, but wasn't seriously considering it until he learned of the cuts. Now he can't afford to add staff members when the lab finishes moving into its new facility at Merriwether and Ellis streets, he said. He may retire at the end of the year to save the office from making layoffs due to budget concerns, he said.

"We have built a beautiful lab and we aren't sure if we can operate in terms of people," Briner said. "That's what you can't get with federal money, you can get a building and equipment, but not people."

In the midst of moving, the lab's five full-time technicians continue to work a growing backlog of cases. Briner expects the new site to be operational in early August, when he planned to add a technician for DNA testing and later a specialist for firearms testing.

"That's what we really need to be adequately staffed," he said, sitting in his current office in the basement of a small white house that has served as the lab for 27 years.

Two other regional crime labs in Joplin and Kansas City are facing similar cuts, he said.

"By the time we all found out, there wasn't anything we could do about it," he said. "We're working now with the Missouri Police Chiefs Association and the Missouri Sheriff's Association to try and get emergency funds put in the budget by January."

He is also looking at new homeland security grants to see if any could assist the lab.

"Crime labs are not funded the way they should be," Briner said. "The only one that I've seen that might be is 'CSI' on television. We've fought budget problems from the beginning, but nothing to this extent in my experience."

Police concern

Lt. Tracy Lemonds, chief of detectives with the Cape Girardeau Police Department, is concerned about losing the ability to do DNA tests locally.

"It would be devastating to law enforcement in Southeast Missouri to lose the crime lab or any services it provides," he said. "Due to the fact that it's right here in our community, the turn around time would be increased if we had to send evidence off to a lab outside the area."

Currently, the police are sending DNA samples to the Missouri State Highway Patrol's main crime lab in Jefferson City after they are initially prepped at the Cape Girardeau lab.

Cape Girardeau County Sheriff John Jordan said the cuts will have a wide affect.

"I think it's going to be really bad for everybody -- all law enforcement," he said. "There's a pattern in the governor's office that if the federal government gives money to items like the crime lab, then the state will wipe it out and take it away from the other end. I share Dr. Briner's frustration. It's a pretty dire situation the state is in."

mwells@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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