AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police Department is stopping efforts to reopen its DNA lab, following revelations that possibly thousands of samples are contaminated. The chief forensics officer hired only last month has been removed from his position after questions arose of his academic transcripts.
Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said the department has failed in regards to their DNA operations, taking responsibility for the failure and promising to push forward so the community has a system that works. “As the chief of police for the Austin Police Department and representing my agency, I apologize to the community and to our partners in the criminal justice system that we’re in the position where we are today,” he said.
Chief Forensics Officer Scott Milne was hired from Phoenix following an audit on how to best structure the lab organizationally. After hiring Milne, Chief Manley said the department began hearing from partners in the criminal justice system that had concerns over Milne’s background and his qualifications. The chief says he pulled Milne’s transcripts, after complaints were made specifically about the academic portion.
“After reviewing his transcripts, I do not believe that he has the qualifications that I want in someone that would run the other functions of our lab that are still operational,” Chief Manley concluded.
Interview panels saw that Milne had checked a box indicating he had an appropriate degree, but “did not go the extra step of looking at the documents behind that degree,” the chief said, explaining that while Milne has a science degree, it’s not at the academic level that he would want to see in someone running the remaining functions of the crime lab. Milne’s Linkedin shows he attended Eastern Kentucky University and most recently worked for the Arizona Department of Public Safety as a criminalist. Milne has been removed from his role overseeing any lab functions and is no longer associated with the lab, Manley said, adding that Milne’s future is something they’re working on determining.
While the serology (the examination of blood serum) and DNA portion of the department’s lab will remain closed, blood work, chemistry, ballistics, patent (visible) prints and latent (invisible) prints will remain open.
Manley said there is no guarantee the DNA portion of the lab will ever reopen. He is waiting for two studies (conducted by outsided experts) to present to City Council to see what’s next. One study will look backwards to determine how the lab got to the point where they had to close last summer. The study will look at, “what allowed these failures to occur and more importantly what systems need to be in place to keep from that,” explains Manley. The second study will look at defining and recommending what a lab should look like in the future, which could mean an independent lab, which some have called for. The final call on what happens next with the DNA lab will be made by city and county officials.
The DNA lab was first opened in 2004. Since then, the lab has been audited 17 times, none of which pointed to the issues uncovered in the Texas Forensics Science Commission’s audit, leading to the lab’s closure in June.
What this means for current cases in Travis County
Chief Manley specifically looked to apologize to his partners in the criminal justice system. He says they recognize dealing with future, current and backlogged cases won’t be easy without a DNA lab.
Manley says the police department is looking to area labs to continue helping with that issue, while the District Attorney’s Office is contracting with an outside lab to outsource the most critical cases that are approaching trial.
Incoming Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore agrees it will not impact current critical cases and says this announcement is one step closer to making a decision on what will happen next.
“We’ve had to move to using different resources to analyze DNA, it is interim and that will continue to take place so I don’t see this decision having any impact on that,” Moore said. “We still have some tough decisions to make and a lot of educating to get done to reach the ultimate outcome which is we still need a lab.”