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The State

EXCLUSIVE: Columbia, Richland sheriff’s crime labs planning merger

By John Monk

Columbia police chief Skip Holbrook will merge his now-defunct small crime lab with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s much larger and nationally accredited crime lab, The State has learned.

That move – likely to be announced next week – was discussed in a sheriff’s department email viewed by The State newspaper. The merger was confirmed Friday by Mayor Steve Benjamin.

The merger will take place in the wake of recent disclosures that the city’s small crime lab had possibly mishandled and improperly analyzed evidence in nearly 200 criminal drug cases. Holbrook closed down the crime lab Aug. 21. Its sole employee, analyst Brenda Frazier, has resigned.

“Everyone wins – it’s in the best interests of the people of the Midlands,” Benjamin said. “It was Chief Holbrook’s idea, and I appreciate the sheriff being open to it as well.”

Benjamin said he and a few top-level city officials met with Holbrook Tuesday at City Hall, “and he indicated a strong interest in establishing a central crime lab and a partnership with the sheriff. He felt strongly it would be a good partnership that would save the taxpayers dollars and give us all the opportunity to work together in a meaningful way.”

Besides Benjamin, present at that meeting were Mayor Pro Tem Brian DeQuincey Newman, city attorney Teresa Knox and senior assistant city manager Allison Baker. City manager Teresa Wilson has been out all week and was not at that meeting.

“We directed Chief Holbrook to go ahead and establish a memorandum of understanding,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin said City Council will be discussing matters such as the cost of the city’s share of the crime lab tab. But he said spending on the scientific expertise needed to analyze and process evidence is one thing the city won’t scrimp on.

“There are certain things that a 21st-century municipality ought to be willing to pay for,” Benjamin said. “We will work on those details.”

The council’s public safety committee – made up of Newman and council members Sam Davis and Cameron Runyan – likely will take up the topic at Wednesday’s meeting at City Hall. Then, in mid-September, the full council will likely discuss it at a regular meeting, Benjamin said.

Earlier this week, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott – who was in discussions with Holbrook about the merger – sent a confidential email to county officials, including county council members.

“In the next couple of days, the Columbia police chief will announce he is partnering with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in our forensic lab,” Lott wrote in his email in an effort to keep his council members informed.

Although Lott declined on Friday to comment on the email, he acknowledged that he and Holbrook were “obviously in serious discussions,” adding, “Any further comment on a formal arrangement would more appropriately come from the city.”

Chief Holbrook did not make himself available for comment, but a spokeswoman confirmed that Lott and Holbrook have had “multiple discussions” for more than a month on the city drug lab operations. “They continue to work together in future strategies,” the spokeswoman said.

In Lott’s email, he said his crime lab “will start with testing of their drugs, and over time move toward ballistics examination, crime scene processing and finally DNA.”

Lott’s lab is nationally and internationally accredited and has numerous specialties. His experts process crime scenes, collect and store all kinds of evidence as well as analyze drugs, fingerprints, DNA, ballistics and firearms. The county lab also has an expanding DNA database that can give “quick hits” in focusing on likely suspects.

Evidence from crime labs is an essential part of most criminal cases. Only if the evidence has been properly handled and evaluated can a defendant be convicted of a crime. Evidence also can exonerate a suspect. All evidence introduced in criminal court cases is subject to rigorous scrutiny by defense lawyers.

Richland County Coroner Gary Watts, whose investigators often are at crime scenes, said in the areas his workers interact with Lott’s – crime scene analysis and drug matters – Lott’s experts have “the highest standards and methods, and their practices are above reproach.”

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, whose prosecutors have used results from both crime labs, was not available for comment.

Richland County Council members contacted by The State had generally favorable reactions to a possible merger of Lott’s and the city’s crime lab operations.

“We’re very proud of our lab,” said council member Greg Pearce. “It’s one of the unknown shining stars of our county.” The sheriff’s lab can process a variety of kinds of evidence much faster than if the evidence were to be processed by SLED’s lab, which handles evidence from all over the state, he said.

“The lab is underutilized now,” he said. “We can do a lot more without adding tremendous cost.”

Council member James Manning said, “The more opportunity we have to work collaboratively between the county and any municipality in the county has great potential for the citizens.”

Council member Seth Rose said a merger would be “a huge step forward” for law local enforcement. “Consolidation will be a good deal for taxpayers and help public safety. This isn’t just about drug analysis – it’s about all kinds of crimes and solving them faster and better.”

Benjamin, in a letter publicly released Friday, said he wants city council to have a full briefing on what led to the failure of the city’s crime lab.

In the letter, to council public safety committee chairman Newman, Benjamin said he wanted to “collect all the facts” behind the drug lab’s closing “so that we and the people can clearly understand how this happened, what could have been done to prevent it, what is the potential impact to our city and citizens and what are we doing now to both minimize that impact and ensure that a situation like this never happens again. Let’s leave no stone unturned.”

City leaders rejected the idea of merged labs more than a decade ago. But the city and county cooperate in several areas of government service to residents.

The county owns and manages a library system and the jail, which is used by the city and various municipalities. The city runs an animal shelter used by the county as well as a joint-use fire department.

During a leadership vacancy at its police force two years ago, city council seriously considered a merger of some sort with Lott’s department, touting it as a way to save taxpayers money and operate more efficiently. But the idea failed in a close, surprise vote.

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