Commissioner: County crime lab 'inadequate'

Posted at 11:29 AM, Oct 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-13 11:29:09-04

CINCINNATI — Aging equipment and cramped workspaces are just two of the many challenges facing Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco and her staff.

And she says she’s had enough.

“We have to get into another place,” Sammarco told WCPO.

Now, Hamilton County Commission President Greg Hartmann thinks a solution might be approaching.

The Hamilton County Coroner’s Office crime laboratory, located on Eden Avenue in Corryville, resides in a building that is now 43 years old.

Sammarco said the aging space makes it difficult for her team to use the sophisticated equipment needed to do the job.

"[The building] was built over 40 years ago to house half the number of people that actually work there," Sammarco said. "This was at a time when the technologies that we're using now weren't even on the horizon."

There’s so little space, she said, technicians often have to process one piece of evidence at a time.

“We have pieces of equipment in this room where we have to unplug one to plug in another one, so that we can actually run these tests simultaneously,” she said. “Normally, in a real crime lab, they’d be run at the same time.”

And it’s not just space. Even when technicians have a place to plug in, sometimes equipment breaks down. The cooler where bodies are kept, for example, has malfunctioned twice in the last year and the machine's age makes repairs difficult.

“Our typical turnaround time is four days,” said Lab Director Mike Trimpe. “But when you’re talking about doing 50 cases a day, if an instrument goes down, that’s a big backlog.”

According to Trimpe, each technician takes about 300 drug cases a month, which he called "a lot" compared to the more typical 100 cases a month for drug analysts.

Sammarco also mentioned the following among the laundry list of issues her team faces daily:

> Lower than desirable staffing

> Electricity and insufficient power generation to run enough machines at once

> Ventilation: "We're using very noxious chemicals for some of the processes, and our ventilation hoods are archaic," Sammarco said. "We can't even get replacement parts for some of the hoods."

While criminal investigations may not be jeopardized as a result, this can mean delays not just for the coroner’s office, but for law enforcement, as well, Trimpe said.

"[The impact is] huge because we have the rapid indictment law in Hamilton County where we have to turn around drug cases," Trimpe said. "They have to have their day in court within 10 days."

Trimpe said his lab currently employs three technicians, with a fourth coming in January.

Sammarco added that the delays can create frustration among law enforcement "because they have to wait so long to get answers from our lab.

"They've been very patient."

And not to mention the impact on families of the deceased.

"We are acutely aware of what [the delays mean] to families and the delays that they are experiencing in getting answers," Sammarco said. "It's very frustrating for us, as well."

Sammarco and her team thought relief was in sight when, early last year, Hamilton County commissioners unanimously approved accepting as a gift the former Mercy Franciscan Hospital facility in Mount Airy to open a new, expanded regional crime lab.

Those plans ultimately fell through due to cost reasons, Hartmann said.

But now, Hartmann feels confident hope is on the horizon.

He told WCPO that he thinks $40 million from existing tax revenues could go toward a new crime lab — not a remodeled building — for the coroner’s office.

“We’re not going to need to raise taxes to do it,” Hartmann said. “I think it will be a real home run for law enforcement.”

Hartmann didn't speculate on whether that money should be used for a new facility or a remodel of the current laboratory. "We've been looking at a variety of options," he said. "I'm probably more inclined to say new... I would err on the side of building something new, and I would love to break ground next year."

Hartmann said he expects an announcement to come within the next 30 days.