Editorials

Gov. Abbott kicks can on DPS crime lab funding

Department of Public Safety forensic scientist James Jeffress examines a pistol during the capital murder trial of Eddie Ray Routh in Erath County in 2015.
Department of Public Safety forensic scientist James Jeffress examines a pistol during the capital murder trial of Eddie Ray Routh in Erath County in 2015. Star-Telegram archives

It didn’t take long for Gov. Greg Abbott to intervene in the Department of Public Safety’s plan to begin charging law enforcement agencies fees for crime lab services.

That’s largely on account of the outcry by members of the local law enforcement community, at least one of whom took to Facebook to air his grievances.

It’s also because cutting the state budget is almost always easier in theory than in practice.

For years, DPS has allowed local law enforcement agencies that lack their own crime labs — usually small and rural ones — to use the state facilities for forensic testing, like DNA and DWI, free of charge.

But the Legislature allotted only $63 million for operation of its crime labs over the next biennium, $11.5 million shy of its authorized funding level.

A provision in the budget would allow DPS to charge local agencies lab fees at reduced rates — $75 for alcohol analysis, $550 for DNA analysis and $150 for toxicology — to raise the money needed to reach its full funding level.

That seems like a reasonable way for DPS to keep its labs funded and a savvy way to ensure that law enforcement officers who use the state labs are prioritizing their cases. Indeed, while the state has an obligation to provide the forensic assistance they lack, local cops must be responsible stewards of state resources.

But DPS botched the announcement.

The agency informed local law enforcement officials in a July 20 letter that fees would be assessed beginning this year. That didn’t give local cops enough time to plan and budget for the additional costs.

Abbott agreed. Barely two weeks later, he asked the head of DPS to retract the earlier announcement, stating that “it is premature to charge a fee at this time.”

Abbott also declared that “under no circumstances will I allow the 13 crime labs that DPS operates across the state to be underfunded.”

Promising to keep labs fully operational while curbing a potential funding source is not a sustainable long-term plan, and Abbott and the Legislature will have to address it again soon.

So will local law enforcement agencies.

It’s reasonable for them to pay a portion of lab fees. They should get used to the idea and plan accordingly.

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