Federal money to reduce DNA testing backlog

Forensic lab serves Anoka, Sherburne and Wright counties

by Peter Bodley

Adams Publishing Group of East Central Minnesota

An infusion of new federal dollars will help the Midwest Regional Forensic Laboratory reduce a DNA testing backlog.

The Anoka County Board Oct. 22 accepted a $145,224 grant covering a two-year period, Jan. 1, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2021, through the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs’ DNA capacity enhancement for backlog reduction project.

The laboratory, housed at the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, serves Anoka, Sherburne and Wright counties through a joint powers agreement.

The lab will use the money to purchase and implement a comprehensive robotic work station to process DNA samples through automation, cutting down considerably the amount of time it takes a forensic scientist to prepare the samples for analysis, according to Scott Ford, forensic laboratory director.

Once the robotic work station is programmed, it will require minimal involvement from a forensic scientist except to replace plastic tips and liquid when they run out, and when they do, the robot gives an automatic alert, Ford said.

“It will save a lot of time and speed up the DNA process,” he said.

Forensic scientists will still perform the DNA analysis.

The new robotic work station will be the second at the laboratory. Two years ago a federal grant enabled the laboratory to purchase its first.

“We have been able to reduce the DNA testing backlog somewhat, but not as much as we would have liked,” Ford said.

But the purchase of the new robot work station is not expected to take place until the fall of 2020 because the lab’s biology section, which performs the DNA and serology testing, is one person short of its full five-member complement, according to Ford.

A year ago the lab was awarded a federal grant through the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 to hire a new forensic scientist for the biology section.

The new scientist hired this year is undergoing training, which can take up to two years, Ford said.

The number of DNA samples sent to the laboratory from the three counties it serves has grown 15-20% per year since 2014, and on a monthly basis it receives 60 to 70 samples from cases, and each case averages four to five samples, according to Ford.

Reasons for the annual increase include law enforcement being better trained in collecting DNA samples as well as sending DNA samples from sexual assault cases more quickly than in the past, he said.

DNA testing takes place for both violent and nonviolent crimes, including homicides, death investigations, assaults, burglaries, robberies, thefts, vandalism and felony possession of weapons, but priority is given to crimes against the person, Ford said.

In April the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office received a $442,052 grant over a three-year period from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Office of Justice Programs, through its Sexual Assault Kit Initiative to reduce a backlog of pre-2015 untested/unsubmitted sexual assault kits.

With the grant money the Sheriff’s Office has hired two new full-time positions, a detective and a property room technician.

According to Sheriff James Stuart, state law was changed in 2015 to mandate the testing of all sexual assault kits as well as requiring law enforcement agencies and forensic science laboratories to submit information about untested sexual assault kits collected prior to 2015.

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