Crime labs are rising and expanding throughout the state as police departments strive to keep pace with the evolving role of science in law enforcement.
The Department of Public Safety broke ground on a $17.7 million lab in Tucson on Nov. 27 and plans to expand its Phoenix operation while construction continues on an $18.5 million lab at the Mesa Police Department.
Phoenix police scientists moved in June from a cramped 19,000-square-foot lab in the basement of police headquarters at 620 W. Washington St. to a 104,000-square-foot building of their own across the street.
“It’s quieter,” said Nancy Crump, assistant crime lab administrator, who has been with the Phoenix lab for nine years. “It’s a calmer atmosphere. We were full service over there, but we were just cramped.”
The workload has increased at all labs in recent years as DNA technology has improved, said Todd Griffith, who leads the DPS lab.
Getting a DNA profile once required investigators to find a bloodstain the size of at least a dime and preferably a quarter, Griffith said.
Now they can get a profile from almost anywhere cells are left, such as the tag on a shirt collar or eyeglass frames.
“That had a large impact on that line of our work,” Griffith said.
In the last seven years overall, submissions to the DPS labs have increased almost 93 percent. DNA submissions increased 800 percent in that same period as police began to use the technology to not only solve current cases, but cold cases, too.
A new law that takes effect Jan. 1 is going to increase the workload of all labs.
Currently, all convicted felons must submit a DNA sample that goes into a national database.
The new law requires everyone arrested on suspicion of violent crimes such as homicide, certain sex crimes and certain burglaries to submit a sample.
Griffith said DPS will be expanding its Phoenix lab by 12,000 to 15,000 square feet in order to meet the increased workload the new law will bring.
In the meantime, DPS will be “shoehorning people in,” until the expansion is complete in the next few years, Griffith said.
The new lab in Tucson will cut some of the workload of all the DPS labs — Phoenix, Flagstaff and Lake Havasu City — when it is completed, mostly in the analysis of drug levels in blood.
Mesa broke ground on its 48,000-square-foot lab in June and is paying for it with public safety bonds approved in 2004 and a quality-of-life tax.
The Forensic Services Section has been operating in cramped quarters in which employees have worked from storage closets for a decade.
The Phoenix police crime lab wasn’t much roomier than Mesa’s current lab.
Besides the elbow room, Phoenix has some of the most advanced equipment, including robotics that will allow for processing of 96 DNA samples at a time.
Attorney General Terry Goddard, who attended Thursday’s grand opening of the Phoenix lab, said the most important thing is to solve cases.
“Now we expect in most cases for there to be a role for this building,” Goddard said.