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Town Council should know in June options for a crime lab in Gilbert.

McClaren, Wilson & Lawrie, Inc. is performing a needs assessment while exploring potential partnerships and looking at the cost and design if the town opts to build its own facility. 

The town hired the Virginia-based consultant last June for $99,311 and spent an additional $36,000 for the internal management of the contract.

“We are looking at the future of how are we going to handle our crime lab needs,” Police Chief Michael Soelberg told the Council at its recent retreat. “Our expectations in the community…(are) synonymous with safety. We want that to continue. 

“Our community has those expectations that we will do everything we can to make sure we maintain that safety and part of that piece of the safety pie or the puzzle is a proper, quick, efficient crime lab which provides us with the evidence we need in order to prosecute our crimes successfully.”

The chief said a full-service crime lab would help the town maintain and improve public safety with increased conviction rates, better efficiency and improved customer service.

Gilbert with 260,000 residents has consistently ranked in the top in the country for safety. The town is expected to reach building a decade from now with some 330,000 people.

The town currently contracts with Mesa and the state Department of Public Safety to process evidence in their crime labs. 

Since 2012, Mesa has been handling evidence such as DNA, toxicology and controlled substances while DPS handles items, including firearms and impressions like from tires and footwear. Gilbert Police handle fingerprinting, crime-scene processing and digital forensics in-house.

According to a Gilbert Police spokeswoman last year, the department sent approximately 3,500 cases a year to Mesa for processing at a cost of $513,884 for fiscal year 2019-20.

And though the town’s contract with Mesa will expire in July 2022, the city has indicated it’s willing to continue service for Gilbert, Soelberg said.

“The current contract with Mesa has a 12-month-out-clause for both,” Soelberg said. “If that happens to us, we have 12 months to figure out what to do. The only option is DPS, which is not a good option for us and the community.”

 Because DPS handles all the evidence in the state, its caseload is heavy and backlogged, according to Soelberg

“They do good work but they’re not able to take the capacity we send them,” he said, adding a town-owned lab would ensure stability.

Soelberg said the town has talked to everyone in the East Valley about a potential lab partnership.  

He said Chandler, which was in a similar predicament as Gilbert, was considering financing a $33-million crime laboratory in a bond for this November and depending on the vote outcome, the city could be a potential partner.

Soelberg also said Mesa has a full-size service lab that has the capacity to expand, so the town will be talking with the city to find out how realistic that is, the timeline and what the cost would be.

“Mesa is open to long-term solutions,” he said. “Our concern is longevity and are we in the position to be self-sufficient if things change.”

He said Tempe, which relies on DPS, was interested in talking with Gilbert but also was communicating with Mesa.

And, Apache Junction, Queen Creek and Maricopa are not in the financial position to help fund or partner on a lab but are looking at contracting out for the service.

The town also could partner with a private lab, although the consultant wasn’t able to find any public/private partnerships of this sort, Soelberg said.

That option has drawbacks – namely with the expense associated with transporting evidence back and forth with a lab, because most of them are out-of-state.

Gilbert can ship all its evidence to NMS Labs in Pennsylvania, without worrying about a chain-of-custody issue, and have it shipped back but at a “huge cost,” Soelberg said.

Councilwoman Aimee Yentes, who had reservations about the issue back in June, said she ultimately would be in favor of Gilbert entering into an agreement with other Valley municipalities or contracting with a private forensic lab.