Regional crime lab opens in south metro Denver area

Facility aims to shorten wait for forensic and DNA evidence analysis

Posted 9/28/18

About three years ago, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock and Arapahoe County Sheriff Dave Walcher met for coffee and discussed their line of work. Throughout the conversation, they talked over …

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Regional crime lab opens in south metro Denver area

Facility aims to shorten wait for forensic and DNA evidence analysis

Posted

About three years ago, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock and Arapahoe County Sheriff Dave Walcher met for coffee and discussed their line of work.

Throughout the conversation, they talked over challenges their organizations face, one of the direst concerning forensic and crime lab work. Many law enforcement agencies across the state rely on the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for forensic and DNA evidence testing.

Unfortunately, the sheriffs say, the sheer volume of cases has overwhelmed the bureau and created a backlog. Crimes such as rape can take precedence over smaller crimes, leaving some cases in limbo, waiting on critical evidence to be tested at the state lab.

Spurlock has said more recently that his office, which has not historically had a crime lab of its own, could wait up to 18 months for results from CBI.

But from that 2015 conversation over coffee, an idea sprouted: What if the sheriffs' jurisdictions could build a joint crime lab?

Walcher and Spurlock took their idea to Aurora's Chief of Police Nick Metz, who “thought about it for all of about two or three seconds” before wanting to get on board, Walcher said. Then they approached District Attorney George Brauchler, whose 18th Judicial District covers Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties. He too supported the idea.

Since the men came together in January 2015, many people worked long and hard to see that idea through, they said. And on Sept. 26, Walcher recounted that story alongside Spurlock, Metz and Brauchler during a news conference in the newly completed Unified Metropolitan Forensic Crime Laboratory.

The 26,500-square-foot $13.7 million building in northern Douglas County is the dream come to life, a partnership of the Aurora Police Department, Douglas County Sheriff's Office, Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office and the district attorney's office that all the agencies hope will bring swifter justice to the region.

“To see it come to fruition in three short years is, to me, utterly amazing,” Metz said. “I've been involved in a lot of capital projects in my career and I've never seen anything come together quite this quick.”

Design began in 2016. Construction started in 2017 and finished this year. A 20-year intergovernmental agreement maps out the cost-share of the project and who provides what.

Douglas County built and owns the building near Aviator Way and South Peoria Street and provides equipment. Aurora provided equipment and also supplied IT resources. All three law enforcement agencies contributed to the 31-member staff.

The lab is capable of processing a slew of forensic evidence.

Two rooms are dedicated to chemistry work, one to firearms and bullet analysis. There is a biology and DNA processing lab, short-term evidence storage, a latent print lab that collects fingerprints through multiple methods and a “questioned documents” lab, where work like handwriting analysis takes place.

In total, there's 14,000 square feet of lab space and 12,500 square feet for administrative and office space.

The project was easy to support, Brauchler said. He believed the roughly 1 million people served by the crime lab's partner agencies would benefit from a crime lab of their own.

“My job, my role in this system is not about convictions or incarceration," he said. "It is about justice — and justice must be predicated on the truth and the timely delivery of that truth.”

Getting DNA evidence processed promptly can help convict a guilty person, Brauchler said, but — just as importantly — clear an innocent defendant.

The lab will considerably shorten wait times for evidence analysis, said Spurlock, but a precise turnaround estimate can't be given until the labs begin testing evidence.

The grand opening was Sept. 27 and it's possible work could begin in the lab by the first week of October.

Brauchler noted communities in the lab's jurisdictions of Douglas County, Arapahoe County and Aurora are rapidly growing. Years from now, should the crime lab see an influx in its caseload and face backlogs of its own, Spurlock said the building was designed so it can be expanded to meet those needs.

Metz said if a serious case arises in their jurisdictions, they can request the lab expedite that evidence processing. And, when needed, they'll still send evidence to CBI should the bureau offer a service or expertise the local lab doesn't have.

Overall, the law enforcement leaders said, the crime lab makes the district safer and alleviates some pressure for the state lab, which they commended more than once as a great partner agency.

“This is the type of facility that is built not just for today but for the future,” Brauchler said, “and for all those justice seekers that will come after us.”

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