San Diego city and county law enforcement officials hired a consulting firm Wednesday to conduct a feasibility study on building a regional crime laboratory.
Proponents of such a facility said it would provide authorities with a central location for analysis of criminal evidence using state-of-the-art equipment.
The lab would save money and shorten the waits now experienced by local cities that send evidence to criminal labs throughout the country, backers of the project say.
The city of San Diego and county each contributed $50,000 in federal asset seizure money to finance the study, which will be finished by Nov. 1, Dist. Atty. Edwin L. Miller said.
Should everything go according to plan, a countywide bond measure financing the county's portion of the lab would be placed on the ballot in either June or November of next year.
Ruth & Going Inc., a San Jose-based consulting firm, was chosen from a field of seven. The firm will focus on the forensic needs of the county's 18 cities, as well as the county medical examiner's office, Miller said.
Principal components of the study, which will begin immediately, include a determination of the needs of the county, different financing options, organization and management of the lab and the best possible location for and design of the lab, Miller said.
"It's become crystal clear over the past two decades that the crime lab capabilities within the San Diego community have gradually deteriorated," he said.
Miller said that at a time when many advances are being made in the forensic sciences, San Diego County is operating without the quality or quantity of resources required for a county its size.
The two largest criminal labs in the county are run by the San Diego Police Department and the county Sheriff's Department.
While the police lab reports no major backlogs, it sometimes must wait months for results of DNA tests it sends to the FBI lab in Washington or private labs in New York or Maryland, said Jim Miller, the lab's manager.
The Sheriff's Department Crime Laboratory serves 17 cities within the county, as well as the California Highway Patrol and the district attorney's office, which are two of its biggest clients, said Ron Berry, supervising criminalist and director of the lab.
But with drastic increases in demand for the lab's services during the past 10 years, and virtually no increases in staff since 1985, Berry has long been asking for more money to meet basic services, much less DNA testing.
Berry reported no real backlog on narcotics cases but a two- to-three-week backlog in blood-alcohol analysis, a one-month backlog in toxicology and a wait of as long as months, almost years, in unsolved cases involving serology and other criminal evidence testing, such as the analysis of hair and fibers or gunshot residue.
In the meantime, the San Diego Police Department will go ahead with its plans to retrofit its lab for DNA testing, said Chief Bob Burgreen.
Burgreen said the department has already hired two scientists to begin training in DNA analysis, and predicted that its DNA lab will begin functioning by October. Burgreen said the department will help other cities by analyzing DNA evidence in extreme cases where the public's safety was in jeopardy but, unfortunately, could not continually do "the DNA work of the rest of the county agencies."
Burgreen said he didn't think there would be two existing DNA labs once the regional lab was capable of DNA analysis.
"If it's regionalized, it would come under one total county lab, and if we get a county regional lab, we will go out of the lab business as a Police Department," he said.