It could be years before NOPD can test DNA evidence in its own new crime lab

Published: Aug. 2, 2022 at 6:59 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) -- A gleaming new five-story building appears finished at the corner of South White and Gravier Streets, sitting between the New Orleans Police Department headquarters and the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office.

“It was supposed to be opened years ago. It’s far behind schedule,” said Skip Gallagher, a New Orleans resident and independent NOPD watchdog.

The NOPD’s new $25 million crime lab remains unopened. It’s a facility that could be extremely valuable in solving some of the city’s most violent crimes.

“It really disturbs me, because if you’re trying to catch serial criminals, you don’t have the evidence to show that they are connected to other events or other crimes,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher knows the impact DNA can have on cases. He’s a chemist, and taught forensic science for more than 10 years.

“Absolutely, I think it’s a crisis,” he said.

According to the NOPD, right now most DNA exhibits are stored -- untested -- in a Central Evidence and Processing warehouse. The NOPD says about 73,000 samples are waiting in there.

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The NOPD has lacked the capacity to test DNA samples in-house since before Hurricane Katrina. Instead, DNA samples are sent to the Louisiana State Police lab in Baton Rouge, but there’s a statewide backlog waiting there.

“Right now, we’re sitting in line with everyone else in the state lab that can run the samples that they have now,” Gallagher.

Back in May, the NOPD had 670 DNA samples waiting to be processed. The new crime lab could be critical in easing that backlog, but the department is far from ready.

The NOPD told Fox 8 it has been moving in equipment and hiring people. It hopes to open the new lab for at least ballistics, fingerprint and other testing before the end of the year. But until it is a nationally accredited DNA lab, it will not be able to provide genetic evidence that could be crucial to making successful arrests and prosecutions.

“So, while at some point in the near future, we may have the bright, shiny new building, we don’t have the equipment or the people to put in that building,” Gallagher said.

DNA analysts will have to be hired, trained and certified, and that will take time and money. New Orleans City Councilwoman Lesli Harris authored an ordinance back in March requiring that to happen.

“The first step is hiring a director of the crime lab, and that has not happened yet,” Harris said in a statement Tuesday. “Only once that director and a trained deputy (superintendent) are in place can the NOPD move toward securing equipment, bringing in staff and moving swiftly toward accreditation.”

It appears it could take years before the NOPD will be able to test DNA samples in its own crime lab.