Columbia City Council is wrestling with the fallout from the recent closure of the Columbia Police Department drug analysis laboratory and attempting to determine how drug evidence will be tested going forward, in the short-term and the long-term.
Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook addressed Council’s public safety committee Wednesday morning, bringing members up to date on how the drug lab closure came to be and what current measures are being taken in regard to drug evidence.
Aside from public safety committee members Brian Newman, Sam Davis and Cameron Runyan, Councilman Moe Baddourah and Mayor Steve Benjamin also joined the conversation.
Perhaps the centerpiece of Wednesday’s conversation was whether or not CPD will combine with the Richland County Sheriff’s Office for crime lab services, at least for the time being. The RCSD crime lab is widely regarded as a top-notch operation.
Holbrook acknowledges he has had conversations with Richland Sheriff Leon Lott about the drug lab and the possibility of a partnership between CPD and RCSD in regard to the lab. The chief says he believes the notion of CPD partnering with the RCSD crime lab is one that will be among the options considered by City Council in coming days.
At the moment, all current CPD drug evidence needing analysis is being submitted to the SLED drug chemistry lab for testing.
The mayor says he would like to see CPD partner with RCSD, preferring that over the city building a new crime lab facility.
“I believe the prudent and smart and efficient thing to do would be for the City of Columbia to join in with the sheriff and have a metro crime lab, with the funding that would normally come from the city to support an effort going to the sheriff and the staff that goes along with it, as well,” Benjamin said. “[RCSD’s crime lab] is a world-class facility, funded with federal and local tax dollars. It’s a win all around and it’s the smart thing to do. I believe that building another duplicative and expensive operation is not in our collective best interests.”
Benjamin campaigned in 2010 on merging the city and county police departments, but was unable to pull together the political capital to do so.
Newman, an attorney and the chairman of the public safety committee, says partnering with the sheriff’s office’s crime lab will likely be considered. He notes such a partnership could especially be a valid short-term solution.
“I think the reality is we have limited options in the short-term when it comes to the crime lab,” Newman says. “SLED services a number of municipalities and counties throughout the state, so it poses a turnaround time issue with us that the sheriff’s department doesn’t have. So, short-term, the prudent thing would be to come to some sort of arrangement for using that [RCSD] lab.
“Long-term? Those are other considerations,” Newman continues. “I think we need to be a self-sustaining department. So, we need to look at the pros and cons and figure out what’s cost effective and whether or not, long-term, not having a crime lab is going to be detrimental.”
Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson says his office was made aware in June that there might be “issues” with drug chemistry cases that had been handled by employee Brenda Frazier in the CPD drug analysis lab.
Johnson made Holbrook aware of the situation, and the chief asked Dr. Demetra Garvin, of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, to perform an analysis of the practices in the drug lab. The analysis took place on July 11 and Aug. 5.
Based on Garvin’s findings, Holbrook ordered the closure of the lab.
Frazier resigned from the Columbia Police Department on Aug. 25.
A memo from Johnson to members of the S.C. Bar indicated Garvin found a host of issues in the city’s drug lab, including that temperatures in the lab might be unacceptable for storage of drug materials and physical evidence, that ventilation in the lab might lead to the degradation of evidence, that the sampling of evidence might not have been done in accordance with best practices and that Frazier “has significant gaps in her previous training and experience and may not currently possess the knowledge necessary to competently perform drug analysis.”
According to Holbrook, Frazier analyzed drug evidence on 746 cases during her time at CPD. Of those, 190 did not receive peer review. Peer review is a process in which an analyst runs a test on a certain drug, then submits the test to a fellow analyst, who reviews the methodology and results of the testing.
Holbrook said at Wednesday’s committee meeting that the RCSD crime lab has agreed to do testing on the 190 cases that were not peer reviewed.