WILMINGTON — Nearly a year ago the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office took over the Wilmington Police Department’s troubled crime lab. Since then, the budget has almost doubled and staff has increased, but the lab itself has tested just 10% of its former blood-alcohol caseload. Further, the lab hasn’t tested a single drug case — and probably won’t for at least another year.
In the years prior to the lab transfer, staff tested blood alcohol and seized drugs for around 500 cases a year, including thousands of individual drug samples. Since July 1, 2019, when the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) took over the lab, staff have tested just 20 blood-alcohol content (BAC) samples. According to the state drug lab in Raleigh, at an in-house cost of around $60 per test, that’s about $1,200 worth of testing from a lab with a budget of around $600,000.
According to NHCSO, there are good reasons for the stark decrease in testing productivity, including a lengthy accreditation process and, of course, Covid-19. Officials say the lab has been far from idle, touting the efforts of staff to get the lab re-accredited and up and running for blood alcohol earlier this year.
Still, the transfer of the forensic lab from WPD to NHCSO has not been the smooth transition presented by former WPD Chief Ralph Evangelous and Sheriff Ed McMahon last April. In particular, Evangelous’ suggestion that the lab would resume testing drugs relatively quickly hasn’t been borne out. Further, despite the impression that NHCSO planned to employ the former WPD employees, much of the lab’s original staff — including its former director — were not kept on, leading to NHCSO’s hiring of staff who were not yet certified to test drugs.
While NHCSO officials said they could not comment on specific concerns about the lab under WPD or personnel issues, it appears the Sheriff’s Office wanted not only new staff but new policies and procedures.
The end result appears to be a mixed bag.
One the one hand, the lab’s budget has been increased by roughly $300,000 and the staff increased to include an important quality management position — essentially the funding and support the lab had needed for years.
On the other hand, getting the lab back up to speed means that the fully funded and staffed facility won’t be providing the service it did under WPD for some time, likely until the end of the next fiscal year in late June, early July 2021. According to the District Attorney’s office, Covid-19 has substantially slowed down prosecution of drug and alcohol cases and, at present, there have been no delays as the result of crime lab. Whether that remains true in the long run remains to be seen.
So why is the crime lab important in the first place? Why did it get transferred? And why did that transfer end up involving so much money while initially processing so few cases?
The Wilmington crime lab
For over a decade, the Wilmington Police Department developed its crime lab. Starting with just one person, and then two, the lab initially just tested BAC kits — although this was still an advantage over sending the BAC samples off to the state, which inevitably meant backlog delays.
Over the years, the crime lab grew. It was accredited to handle drug testing which, as with the BAC kits, meant drug cases could be processed — and prosecuted — much more quickly than if they relied on testing at state labs in Raleigh. Turnaround time at the lab was weeks as opposed to months or years at the state lab.
It also meant the jail population was reduced. In budgetary terms, this meant saving New Hanover County $90 per detainee per day. In civil rights terms, more importantly, it reduced the likelihood that detainees who couldn’t make bond would spend more time in jail awaiting trial then they would eventually be sentenced to, whose punishment was essentially increased not by a judge or court of law but by delays in lab testing. And, for those who were innocent but stuck in jail, it expedited the process of freeing them.
And it wasn’t just WPD’s own cases, the crime lab grew to serve over around 30 law enforcement agencies in a six-county region. Between 2016 and 2019, the lab handled around 300 or more BAC cases and around 200 drug cases annually.
The lab’s budget was complicated, mixing money from the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, and a federal grant from through the North Carolina Governors Highway Safety Program (GHSP). In its final fiscal year under WPD (from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019) the budget was approximately $470,000 — with around $268,000 from the city, $89,375 from the county, and about $113,000 in grant money.
The lab consistently struggled with getting enough funding, despite generally positive feedback from the law enforcement agencies it served. Thanks to grants secured by the lab director, the lab was able to stay afloat. However, the main grant wasn’t permanent and decreased in amount every year after it was awarded.
The lab gets transferred to New Hanover County
While budget woes had plagued the lab for years, the situation rapidly deteriorated after an internal audit — and then an internal affairs investigation — led to the termination of William Peltzer, a lab chemist, in January of 2019.
Three months later, the WPD Chief Ralph Evangelous and Sheriff Ed McMahon made a joint announcement that the crime lab would be transferred to New Hanover County, to be managed under NHCSO’s authority (although it would physically remain in the WPD building where it had been for a decade).
When asked during the conference what the lab’s budget would be under NHCSO, McMahon said he couldn’t provide specifics. However, Evangelous noted that the lab costs had averaged between $500,000 and $600,000. While that estimate was a little high, it ended up being an accurate picture of the funding the lab would receive under NHCSO.
In its first year under the Sheriff’s Office, starting July 1, 2019, the original budget was $485,500 — similar to its prior-year under WPD — but that was later adjusted to $612,431. In addition, the GHSP grant to WPD transferred to the Sheriff’s Office and was renewed for $83,000 for 2020-2021 — bringing the total funding to about $695,000.
NHCSO also added a fifth position, a quality assurance manager position — previously, the lab’s director had been serving triple duty, serving as manager, chemist, and director.
A long transition period
In April of 2019, Evangelous and McMahon discussed the transfer of the lab, downplaying the Peltzer incident and focusing on the chronic budget and personnel shortages. The two noted that the transfer had the blessing of District Attorney Ben David and County Manager Chris Coudriet and focused on the fact that, under NCHSO, the lab would finally get the funding and staff it needed.
Several questions arose at the time of the April 18 press conference, including what would happen to the lab’s staff and when the lab would resume testing drugs after the transfer (the lab had suspended its accreditation following Pelzter’s firing, not directly because of Pelzter’s misconduct but because the lab was, at that point, too short-staffed to continue testing drugs).
At the time, both Evangelous and McMahon said that details about the transition process were ‘still being worked on.’ When Wilmington City Council voted to approve the transfer several months later, there was still no additional information included; County Commissioners approved the transfer as part of the FY 2020 budget, which also included few details about the transfer.
During the conference, Evangelous confirmed that the state would continue testing drugs for the lab until after the transfer, and which point he said the lab would have to go through a ‘transition period’ and get back up to speed — but he said he believed the lab would resume drug testing “relatively quickly.”
McMahon said all the lab’s personnel would still have to go through the county’s hiring process, however, he said that “with [the] existing personnel what we hope for is a long-lasting relationship, so hopefully that puts any of the current employees at ease — our plan is to continue employing them.”
However, things did not go that smoothly.
There appear to have been two issues with the lab transfer that ultimately caused delays in getting the lab back on track: getting accreditation and replacing policies and personnel.
Nearly a year after the transfer, the lab still isn’t testing drugs. And, while NHCSO ultimately employed the lab tech and one of the chemists, a part-time chemist appears to have taken a job out of state and the lab director was not hired by NHCSO.
Asked what happened to these employees, NHCSO Chief Deputy Ken Sarvis said only the Sheriff’s Office could not discuss personnel matters or the hiring process. And, despite the Sheriff’s efforts to put employees ‘at ease,’ back in April of 2019, NHCSO says the policy has been that employees would “have the opportunity to apply” for positions when the Sheriff’s Office takes over, whether it be the former WPD crime lab, CFCC police positions, or ILM security.
Evangelous, now interim Chief at Wrightsville Beach Police Department said that, at the time, he was under the incorrect impression that the lab’s accreditation would transfer with it to NHCSO — it did not. Asked about NHCSO’s decision not to hire the former lab director, Evangelous said he had no insight into how the Sheriff’s Office made that decision.
The first issue was simple: the lab’s accreditation didn’t transfer with ownership. While the lab remained in the same physical location it was, on paper, a new facility.
The accreditation process for forensic labs (and many other facilities) is overseen by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB). Getting accredited by ANAB takes time, six months to a year for BAC and a year or more for ‘seized drug’ testing (however, these can be sought in tandem).
Lt. Lauren White, who was the acting lab director for the NHCSO forensic lab at the time of the transfer said the Sheriff’s Office knew it would be a long transition period. White said NHCSO’s first priority was getting the lab certified for BAC, in part because the WPD lab had already suspended drug testing.
White said considerable work went into the BAC accreditation and confirmed that a significant amount of the increased budget went towards time and supplies for training.
“We had to rewrite all of our policies, we had to our own method of validation studies, and so there was a lot of legwork that went in — we knew it was a longshot to get it done in six months, but we did. We received full accreditation on December 27 (2019), from ANAB, for blood alcohol” White said.
It’s important to note that the Covid-19 pandemic played a role in reducing BAC testing, White said. After receiving accreditation, and spending several weeks reworking policies, memorandums of understanding to operate the lab, and drafting new paperwork for submittals and analysis requests, the lab started casework in mid-January. Two months later, Governor Roy Cooper’s executive orders effectively closed drinking establishments — the result, White said, has been a near elimination of BAC cases.
White said the lab staff has now turned its attention and training to accreditation for forensic drug testing. According to lab manager Brian Dew, a veteran crime scene investigator and former fingerprint analyst for NCHSO, his “personal goal” is to have that certification by July of 2021.
As with BAC, this will involve training and rewriting new policies, Dew said.
It’s not clear why NHCSO didn’t reuse some of the policies and procedures established at the lab while it was under WPD. However, speaking in general, NHCSO spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer said that NHCSO’s desire was to be ‘the best.’
“We have a Sheriff who likes things run a certain way — essentially if we’re going to do something, we’re going to be the best at it,” Brewer said, adding that while accreditation often involves a back-and-forth with ANAB, which will point out ‘deficiencies’ that need correction, the lab under NHCSO received no such negative marks when it was certified at the end of 2019.
The second issue seems more complicated: personnel.
Why did the lab high five positions when it was not ready to test either BAC or seized drugs? Why didn’t the lab retain its former director, who was qualified to do both? And why did the lab hire a replacement chemist who wasn’t qualified to test drugs?
According to Dew, the lab needed the staff in order to get the accreditation.
“When you’re accredited you have to have a certain amount of lab staffing and they have to demonstrate that they’ve operated under the standard operating procedures,” Dew said. “Also, for each discipline that you serve [i.e. BAC or drugs] you have to have two people who are competently trained.”
And, while the WPD lab did initially earn accreditation for BAC with a much smaller staff (just one person, initially, followed by the addition of a part-time employee), ramping up capacity took time. Dew and White said the lab wanted to be able to hit the ground running when it got accredited, with the focus on BAC.
The lab had to choose which specialization to focus on because, according to Dew, “You don’t find people who are dually trained in both blood alcohol, which is part of forensic toxicology, and seized drug chemistry.”
However, the former lab director at WPD was certified in both but wasn’t retained. Again, Brewer and Sarvis noted that NHCSO could not discuss any personnel issues.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001