CRIME WATCH : Lament for a Lab

Acknowledging serious shortcomings in its crime lab division, the Los Angeles Police Department has determined it would take $7.2 million and an expert external review to give the nation's second-largest city the first-class facility it deserves.

Predictably, some City Council members were taken aback by the price tag, in a draft report that resulted from an internal LAPD study. But, as the embarrassing crime lab mistakes disclosed in the O.JJ. Simpson murder trial demonstrate, you get what you pay for.

The report says there's a crying need for expansion of the cramped laboratory and for alteration of its layout. Also needed is new equipment such as microscopes, refrigerators and computers, plus new field manuals. Furthermore, the report says, the lab staff is overworked.

Improvements are required not only to achieve national accreditation, which the lab has never had, but to properly investigate the hundreds of homicides committed in the city every year.

Police Chief Willie L. Williams is asking an outside group, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, to conduct an independent analysis of the LAPD crime lab and issue its own recommendations. Williams sent a copy of the draft to Mayor Richard Riordan.

These moves should spur the City Council to find the money for the improvements. If it will not or cannot, the lab division, which has been called a stepchild of the LAPD, will continue to suffer. That wouldn't do. The fates of any number of defendants may depend on how well the lab does its job.

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