Talks about an Omaha-Douglas County crime lab merger have stalled, and each side blames the other for lack of progress.
The potential merger of the two crime labs entered the public spotlight after the evidence-tampering conviction of the former county crime lab manager. Creation of a single crime lab was considered a logical next merger for the city and county to reduce costs and eliminate duplication.
But after nearly two years of on-again, off-again discussions, both sides say a merger is not likely to happen.
County officials blame Omaha for not being more flexible. Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle said Douglas County and Sheriff Tim Dunning tried to gain the upper hand by plowing ahead with a $4 million upgrade to the county crime lab in northwest Omaha, with little regard for the Omaha Police Department’s logistics.
And a lack of trust in the county crime lab lingers following David Kofoed’s tampering conviction.
Suttle said he is leery about turning over control of a unified crime lab to the Sheriff’s Office.
“Right now, it is not a top issue for me,” Suttle said. “It was on my checklist when I started in office, but I’m really doubtful this will come together.”
Some county leaders don’t want to give up on a merger.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said the crime lab merger needs to happen, and he suggested that both sides seek out a mediator to move past turf battles. In prosecuting cases, Kleine said he would much rather deal with a single crime lab.
County Board member Mike Boyle said that without the local will to reach an agreement, he plans to pursue a crime lab merger through the Legislature.
Boyle said he has asked State Sen. Brad Ashford, a merger proponent who is running for mayor of Omaha, to sponsor legislation that would direct the county and city to merge crime labs. Ashford said he is drafting legislation to force a crime lab merger.
The impasse comes as Douglas County voters show interest in mergers. By a 3-to-1 ratio, voters in November agreed to merge the county’s register of deeds and assessor’s offices.
And the city and county have a history of partnering on law enforcement functions, including the merging of 911 centers in 1998. In 2008, Omaha closed its jail to consolidate with the county jail.
County Board member Mary Ann Borgeson said she’s disappointed that a crime lab deal hasn’t happened.
“I feel there is still a possibility to bring it up and talk about it again,” she said. “We’ll just have to see if the political will is still there.”
But board member Clare Duda doubts that a merger would work.
Duda said the lack of cooperation between the two crime labs appears difficult to overcome. Duda said Omaha is not utilizing the county’s sophisticated year-old forensics lab, even though several police departments across Sarpy County and the region use it regularly.
Duda said streamlining the pay, benefits and pension programs for also would be cumbersome and time-consuming.
“I’ve never seen a scenario that would benefit either party,” Duda said. “I’m not at all surprised, and I think it’s impractical to see it at all.”
Law enforcement turf issues and questions of management and control remain obstacles.
Sheriff Tim Dunning said the city should be agreeable to using his agency’s lab near 156th Street and West Maple Road.
“Why build a new one when it’s already here,” Dunning said. “It’s just kind of frustrating because one side wants to continue doing things the way they’ve always done. To me, that’s status quo, and that’s not very progressive. The ball is really in (Suttle’s) court, if he does not want to do it.”
Suttle said merging crime labs would be more complex than simply combining the two labs into one. He said issues surrounding credibility, affordability and efficiency have never been addressed during his discussions with the county.
Suttle said most crimes investigated by the Omaha lab are close to the downtown Police Headquarters, so it doesn’t make sense to move the city’s personnel to northwest Omaha.
The Omaha Police Department also is planning its own crime lab expansion as part of a renovation at its headquarters.
The mayor said he still wonders if there will be more fallout in the courts from the Kofoed situation. The Nebraska Supreme Court has ordered evidentiary hearings for convicted killers Ivan Henk and Christopher Edwards following allegations that Kofoed planted blood to help secure their convictions.
“There cannot be doubt about the crime lab when prosecutors are putting cases together and getting ready for court,” Suttle said.
Dunning said Suttle’s concerns are unfounded.
“People need to get off Kofoed,” Dunning said. “He went to prison. He is gone, and he is never coming back. We have put further controls in place to make sure something like that never happens again.”
Boyle believes the merger will happen only if state lawmakers intervene and force the county and city to take action.
“If this was placed on the ballot, the voters would overwhelmingly approve the merger of these crime labs, which could potentially save the taxpayers millions of dollars,” Boyle said.
Borgeson said the state should stay out of the issue.
“It’s worth trying again at the local level,” she said. “If the mayor told his police chief ‘get it done’ and we told our sheriff ‘bring us back a plan,’ it would get done.”
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