Last week’s event on November 8 at the University of Minnesota Law School exceeded expectation: a large, lively audience (est. 120) asking great questions, and an impassioned panel of local officials and a defense attorney giving their own insightful and at times impassioned reactions to my talk on “Failed Evidence.”
There was one thing that was not unexpected: plenty of discussion of the still-unfolding scandal at the St. Paul crime lab, including a revelation that I had not heard before.
For those not familiar with what’s been happening at the St. Paul lab, take a quick look at my Failed Evidence blog post from last Thursday, which will link you to much of the news coverage in the last several months. We’ve learned about a lack of protocols, some very sloppy handling of evidence, and more. But at the event, we heard from John Harrington, former chief of police in St. Paul and a member of the panel, that the problems recently revealed may in fact have roots that go back some years, and that he told local officials about shortcomings at the lab as early as 2006 and 2007. Chief Harrington said that he brought engineers from 3M into the lab in 2006 to study it, pinpoint any problems, and to tell him what to fix and how. The good folks at 3M did their work, and came back to Chief Harrington with a plan and a price tag: $2 million dollars. Chief Harrington sought federal funding, but without success. He then went to local officials, and they turned him down. He was told, in effect, do the best you can with what you have. There was no appetite for fixing the problems if there was a cost to doing so; the system would simply have to limp along.
Without knowing more, it is impossible to tell for sure whether the problems spotted by 3M in 2006 were the same ones that came to public notice in 2012, or whether the issues found by 3M in 2006 led to the 2012 issues. But we can be sure of one thing in this world: you get what you pay for, and if you won’t pay to improve things when necessary, you won’t get improvement. So is seems that this information deserves to be taken seriously. If these facts are not already part of the investigation into the lab scandal (and I can’t find anything about them in the news coverage thus far — please correct me if I am wrong), perhaps they should be.