August 10, 2017 10:30:41 AM
Austin Shepherd said he planned to fist-pump when he got back to his office.
Shepherd, the director of the Columbus Police Department's crime lab, was on his way out of City Hall from a budget meeting where city councilmen unanimously approved $88,000 total to hire two employees for the lab, effectively doubling the staff.
"It's been a roller coaster for three years," he said. "For the lab, it's massive. It means the lab will be here for another 20 years. We basically just solidified ourselves as a department for the city of Columbus, and really as a cornerstone lab for our area."
The vote is the conclusion of a matter Shepherd has been pressing for years, which gained added prominence in the spring when consultant K.B. Tuner recommended adding additional staff for the unit.
During Wednesday's budget meeting, Shepherd made yet another pitch for why the council should approve funding for two new trainees.
Much of the need, Shepherd said, is for preparing for the future. The crime lab currently sends about 20 percent of its reports to outside agencies for peer review, at a cost of roughly $20,000 per year. He said federal standards require all cases to go through peer review by 2020, and it would cost about $325,000 to outsource those reviews.
However, with additional staff, CPD's crime lab could conduct peer review in-house, which would reduce costs. He also said it would allow the reports to still be used in cases, should something happen to himself or forensic scientist Claudette Gilman.
"Should one of us leave, or get run over by a bread truck in the parking lot or what have you, all of those reports we've written are no longer valid because we can't necessarily be called to court to testify to our findings," Shepherd said. "Thus, we need to institute ... peer review in our crime lab."
Shepherd also noted bringing in the extra workers will help the lab continue to grow and possibly provide service to more law enforcement areas in the region. He said he and Gilman work 1,200 to 1,300 cases a year, but that has plateaued recently as they've carried as much workload as they can. The crime lab already works with several area agencies, which brings in enough money to cover most of its expenses, Shepherd said. He said more staff would allow him to reach out to more agencies, which would help bring in additional funding.
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones said he hopes to see the crime lab continue to improve. He noted the extra funding it could bring in made approving funding for more hires and easy decision.
"We definitely need those people over there," Jones said. "I'm looking at it as a business point -- if we're able to bring in money and hopefully make money and bring in money from different areas around the state, it's a no-lose situation."
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box echoed Jones' sentiments.
"We've got a great crime lab down there and they do a great job," Box said. "It's going to improve services and trying tom move cases (faster), plus I think it's going to help expand out to help other agencies. So I don't think we're going to have a total expense of $88,000. That's going to be offset by income they're already getting in. For me it was kind of like a no-brainer to hire them."
For the first year, Shepherd said, the new staff will focus on training, barring unexpectedly quick progress.
"They won't work actively work a case their first year by themselves, unless they just really progress through the training program," he said. "After we get through with that, we'll start assigning them cases."
Once training is complete, Shepherd said he hopes to have people specialize, rather than having everyone try to handle all the work, as currently happens in the lab.
"By specializing, you open up all kinds of new possibilities to go even more in-depth with evidence, so that's kind of going to be their role," he said. "Of course, we're all going to do crime scenes, so we're going to be able to expand that as well."
Shepherd also told councilmen he wants to hire locally.
"We should hire local people who are invested in our community who want to be here for more than just money," he said. "You don't get into this job for the money. You actually want to be here, you want to be employed by the crime lab, you want to make a difference in the community and you're going to stay for that reason.
"I think there's plenty of people here--I mean, gosh, I get unsolicited emails from local college students all the time asking for work," he added. "So let's put them to work and make Columbus better."
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