Mesa’s relatively new crime lab

Mesa’s relatively new crime lab has been handling a number of cases for Gilbert Police.

For $135,311, Gilbert will find out if it will need to build and operate its own crime lab in the future.

Town Council recently voted 5-2 to hire McClaren, Wilson & Lawrie, Inc. for $99,311 to do the assessment and to spend another $36,000 for the internal management of the agreement. The firm also builds crime labs.

“We are always looking to provide quality service to our citizens through our crime lab so there is not a specific ‘tipping point’ either in crime or population to determine if a crime lab is needed,” said Officer Dani Covey, spokeswoman for the Gilbert Police Department. “Concern is over routinely providing timely, quality service to our citizens through our crime lab.”

Gilbert has contracted with Mesa since 2013 to use its crime lab; before that, it used the state Department of Public Safety lab, according to Covey.

Gilbert Police sends approximately 3,500 cases a year to Mesa for processing, she said. The town paid $513,884 for that service in the fiscal year ending this Tuesday, she added.

Covey noted that the Gilbert Police Department currently processes all crime scenes and forensic examination of latent fingerprints while Mesa handles all toxicology, controlled substances and DNA evidence while the DPS crime lab provides testing for firearms and trace evidence like hair, fibers, paint and impressions.

Covey said by having an in-house crime lab, Gilbert police would be able to provide quality service for the community.

“We were not getting that through DPS, so Gilbert went to Mesa for contracted services,” she said. “We have received excellent services from Mesa, but the proposed crime lab assessment will evaluate the long-term sustainability of this service to Gilbert.”

For two council members on the night of the June 16 vote, the town was jumping the gun.

Councilwoman Aimee Yentes, who pulled the item off the consent agenda for discussion, said she’s met with the police chief and appreciated his desire to bring this issue forward but she had two problems with it.

She said the company doing the assessment also builds crime labs “so I don’t know how objective the information is when you have an opportunity to bid on building it.”

“I think that it gives them a financial interest in the first part, which is to determine if we need one,” Yentes added. “Secondly, I do think this is a little bit premature.”

McClaren, Wilson & Lawrie is based in Ashland, Virginia, and specializes in the planning and design of public safety and forensic sciences facilities since it established in 1995.

According to the firm, it has worked on over 140 forensic laboratory projects, including for DPS and Phoenix. 

Yentes said Gilbert is already one of the safest communities in the state and country and will continue so as long as the town funds police.

“I don’t think we as a leadership team have explored all our options,” Yentes said. “Currently we contract for about $400,000 to $500,000 a year with Mesa and they do our processing. Maricopa County has a lab as well that will meet all of our needs. I think until we explore that as an opportunity for a contract, I think this is premature.”

Police departments in Phoenix and Scottsdale also have crime labs and Chandler has a limited crime lab and relies on DPS for certain tests.    

Councilman Jared Taylor, the other dissenter, said he’s a big fan of regional partnerships, calling them more efficient.

He said he’s talked with Mesa officials, who are supportive of the partnership with Gilbert and noted they’ve indicated Mesa’s forensic lab has the capacity to handle Gilbert’s cases even as the town grows. 

Gilbert has about 260,000 residents and is expected to reach build-out in about a decade with 330,000 people.

A Mesa spokesman did not return a request for comment.

“If we think about rolling the marble here and we do the assessment by the group that bids on it, it’ll become a big bond again,” Taylor said. “If you think how much that debt service will be, it’s going to be a lot more than $400,000 a year annually.”

He advised the town to instead wait and see where the economy was heading before “planning on future expenditures like this.”

“To me the real needs assessment is how can we strengthen (Mesa’s crime lab) and maybe there’s a wing or something that can be added to that particular building,” Taylor said. “I know they are open to that as well.”

Mesa police debuted its new state-of-the-art crime laboratory in fall 2008 after having operated out of a cramp court building for decades. In 2018, it launched a mobile forensic lab.

Taylor said he wanted to see municipalities partnering on a regional lab rather than see towns and cities building their own facilities.

Yentes said there’ve been some preliminary discussions with other communities that have expressed interest in partnering on a lab but at this point they aren’t even willing to participate in the “cost of a consultation such as this.”

Mayor Jenn Daniels said the issue has been a topic of conversation for about a decade.

“I don’t think this is a build-a-crime-lab-tomorrow,” Daniels said. “I think this is a very much long term thought process and I would expect that it lasts three to five years at minimum that we can continue to have this dialogue.

“But I do think this planning needs to start now, particularly if we are going to look at a regional solution – if we are going include cities like Queen Creek, who are just now getting their own police department, the city of Chandler, also the Gila River Indian Community (and) the city of Maricopa. Many other cities have expressed a need.”

 “One of the things that can be very frustrating both for prosecutors but especially for victims is the time lapse between turnaround times as it relates to crime labs,” Daniels said, adding:

 “You may have seen the backlog of rape kits that exists in the county and it’s not fair and it’s wrong to make a victim wait and so I would very much like to see us at least explore this as an idea.”

Maricopa County received two federal grants in 2016 and 2017, totaling $2.9 million, to help clear the backlog of 4,367 sexual assault cases. Last year, the county attorney’s office announced it was close to testing all the untested kits. 

A spokeswoman from that office didn’t respond with comments.

“I think doing an analysis about the need and not just for Gilbert but for the region as a whole is going to be critically important for us,” Daniels said. “If we decide four, five, maybe 10 years from now this town needs to build a crime lab I’m fully supportive of this because a victim should not have to wait for their test results.”

The consulting company is tasked with confirming if adjacent municipalities are interested in participating in a regional lab. 

Its scope of work includes providing the building and operation costs for a lab, studies, reports, master plans, designs and drawings.

Vice Mayor Scott Anderson also weighed in on the matter, referencing the Black Lives Matter protests both in the state and across the country.

“I think given what’s happening in our country today, giving our police every tool in the box that they can use for community policing is very important,” Anderson said. “If this happens to be something that helps maintain our status as one of the safest communities in the entire nation, we need to go forward and at least explore it.”