Editorial: Columbia, SC’s failed drug lab should be absorbed into Richland County’s stellar one

08/28/2014 9:00 PM

08/28/2014 5:29 PM

COLUMBIA POLICE Chief Skip Holbrook wisely shuttered the department’s drug lab amid disturbing news that its lone analyst wasn’t properly trained and that evidence might have been mishandled, putting nearly 200 cases in jeopardy.

It would be even wiser to keep the lab closed for good, especially since there is a much better alternative that should have been adopted long ago. Columbia’s operation should be merged into the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, whose lab is easily one of the best in the state. It has never made sense for the city and county to have redundant facilities.

Chief Holbrook and Columbia officials should waste no time petitioning Sheriff Leon Lott and Richland County leaders to merge the labs. Not only would it be more efficient and cost-effective; more importantly, it would assure that Columbia is getting high-quality analyses that prosecutors can feel confident presenting at trial.

As it stands, the city is conducting an internal audit of the drug analysis lab and will seek independent reviews of 188 cases. It’s safe to assume that accused and convicted individuals will be raising questions about the validity of the evidence presented against them. And who could blame them? What if someone was accused and convicted on analyses that were flawed? Unfortunately, the monumental mess also could give opportunists who were rightly convicted an opening to cast doubt over evidence in their cases.

Quite frankly, the analyst, Brenda Frazier, got off lightly by being allowed to resign. But while Ms. Frazier, who assisted on nearly 800 cases since being employed in 2011, shoulders much of the blame, this isn’t all her fault. Who was overseeing this division? Chief Holbrook and city officials must determine why the situation deteriorated to the point it did in Columbia’s drug lab.

The chief said that historically there were two chemists at the department, which allowed them to review one another’s work for accuracy and quality. But shortly after Ms. Frazier joined the lab, she became its only chemist, and her work determining the weight and kind of drugs being tested was crucial in the prosecution of criminal drug cases. What led to Ms. Frazier becoming the alone analyst? Why wasn’t another chemist hired? While she could go outside for peer review — and did, for a while — leaving her alone and apparently not closely supervised turned out to be a recipe for disaster.

Without a doubt, it could take some time to unravel this mess, which delivers yet another black eye to a department that has spent the past several years trying to recover from one body blow after another, from scandals to repeated changes in the chief’s office.

But something good could come from this if city and county officials agree on a merged lab operated by the Sheriff’s Department, an idea city leaders rejected more than a decade ago.

While the city chose to continue operating its own duplicative lab that grew into the embarrassment we see today, Richland County has built a top-notch facility since starting its operation back in 2000. Sheriff Lott insists the key to Richland’s success is that he built the system the right way: Although Richland has a modern facility with cutting-edge technology, that wasn’t the priority; instead, Sheriff Lott said, he focused on hiring highly trained, skilled experts more than capable of conducting credible drug analyses as well as ballistic and DNA testing.

We see no downside to Columbia transferring the funding and positions from its failed lab to the sheriff’s department. It reduces duplication, improves the quality of analysis and furthers the goal of combining city and county services where possible to improve efficiency and control costs. This deal needs to be struck today.

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