Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Funding, staffing issues prompt turnover of Wilmington police crime lab to county

Rom left: Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous and New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon announced that the county would take over the police crime lab, effective as soon as July. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
From left: Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous and New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon announced that the county would take over the police crime lab, effective as soon as July. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — After years of financial struggle — and more recently, the firing of a police chemist who lied about performing his duties – the Wilmington Crime Lab is being transferred to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, with the county picking up a majority of the financial burden.

Related: Years of Wilmington drug cases facing review, potential dismissal after police fire ‘untruthful’ drug lab employee

The proposal, announced at a joint press conference by Chief Ralph Evangelous and Sheriff Ed McMahon, would have to be approved by both Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

Evangelous and McMahon said they’ve received support from both city and county managers, as well as District Attorney; the transfer could be enacted as early as July 1, they said.

Under the arrangement, the lab would remain at the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) headquarters on Bess Street in downtown Wilmington. Current staff would become county employees, according to McMahon, and the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) would operate the lab.

Below: Watch the full press conference (article continues, below).

Funding

The City of Wilmington, which has for over a decade funded the majority of the lab expenses, would contribute 40% of lab costs moving forward while the county would contribute 60%. McMahon said he could not ballpark an exact figure, but Evangelous said current costs for the lab average between $500,000 and $600,000 annually.

That number could ultimately be higher, however. As Evangelous noted, the impetus for the transfer was funding concerns brought into sharp focus by the firing of William Peltzer from the crime lab.

Evangelous noted that Peltzer’s misconduct was detected internally, adding that it pointed to “not having enough manpower” in the lab. He reiterated that there was no lack of confidence in other employees or the lab’s integrity.

McMahon also said that, while there were no hard details, that the county would likely look at adding more employees to the lab.

It’s not clear how much new positions run, but a new forensic chemist position in 2014 cost $83,459.

Funding has been an issue since the crime lab was founded 11 years ago, Evangelous said. Wilmington has struggled every year to find money, as state grants came and went.

That’s in part because the lab was never intended to be a permanent addition to the WPD facility (or budget). Evangelous has repeatedly said that the lab was founded as “proof of concept” to show that a regional lab could be successful and help expedite local drug and blood-alcohol testing. A local lab can process evidence in weeks, as opposed to month or years at a state lab. The end goal: to have the state take over the lab and fund it.

Now, with state grants running out and the need for new staff put in the spotlight by the Peltzer incident, Evangelous called turning the crime lab over to the county “the best option.”

Asked why WPD waited so long to implement a transfer to help share costs, Evangelous said there was traction “early on” with the state, with plans to build a state-run facility on UNCW property, but that the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession of 2009 and 2010 effectively eliminated the availability of state funding.

And, while Evangelous and McMahon both said they would welcome a state-run facility in the area, that’s apparently not on the table for the foreseeable future.

Details forthcoming

Evangelous and McMahon said they were still working out many of the details of the transfer, including how to handle evidence in cases currently being handled, the hiring of new employees, and the total cost of the lab under its new operation.

In the wake of the Peltzer incident, Evangelous said the state was handling drug testing for WPD. That will continue, he said, until the drug testing portion of the lab is reestablished under NHCSO — although, he added, state management of drug testing was not contingent on transferring the lab to NHCSO.

There is not yet a set date for votes by City Council or Board of Commissioners.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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