Sunday, August 14, 2022

NHCSO hopes $241,000 federal grant will help get local drug testing restarted after year-long delay

NHCSO headquarters.

WILMINGTON — The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office is requesting permission from the county to apply for a federal grant that, if received, will fund an additional position in its crime lab and hopefully accelerate the process of resuming drug testing.

The Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants Program provides funding to state and local agencies to help reduce backlogs and improve the performance of forensic laps. NHCSO is requesting $241,000, just shy of the grant maximum.

Related: NHCSO took over WPD crime lab, increased staff and funding, but hasn’t tested any drugs. Here’s why.

The funding, which would not require a local match, would provide $160,000 to cover the additional salary and benefits of a full-time drug chemist and $81,000 in training for four other lab members. The lab currently has five members; the grant would increase that staff to six. NHCSO notes that the grant program encourages retaining additional employees after the period covered by the grant, but it isn’t required.

The crime lab was started and operated for over a decade under the Wilmington Police Department, but struggled with funding. Despite grants secured by the former director and a full-time position funded by the county, the lab routinely received only two-thirds of the funding it needed.

This issue came to a head in late 2018 and early 2019, when internal audits found that former lab chemist William Peltzer had been failing to follow lab protocols, including mishandling evidence, failure to keep accurate records, and operating equipment without calibrating it. Peltzer was fired and, while none of the cases he performed analysis on were overturned, for some the lab’s reputation was tarnished.

In April 2019, Sheriff Ed McMahon and then WPD Chief Ralph Evangelous agreed, with the permission of New Hanover County Commissioners and Wilmington City Council members, to transfer the lab’s management to NHCSO (the lab remained physically located at WPD headquarters).

While pitched as a relatively quick and smooth transition, in reality, the lab’s accreditation did not transfer from WPD to NHCSO, which also undertook major rewrites of policies and procedures. NHCSO also did not hire the lab’s former director, which meant training another employee in drug chemistry.

The end result was that the lab took six months to restart blood alcohol testing (combined with a reduction in BAC cases due to Covid-19, the lab has tested around 10% of its usual annual caseload),

Further, the lab suspended drug testing in February 2019 under WPD and then began the process of re-accreditation at the beginning of 2020 after securing BAC status. The lab’s current director said he hopes to secure drug-testing accreditation by the end of Fiscal Year 2020 (late June 2021). NHCSO hopes the federal grant funding will accelerate that process.

Commissioners will vote to approve NHCSO moving forward with the grant application on Monday. The deadline for applications is June 19.

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