Richland sheriff’s crime lab, crime scene officers OK’d for expansion

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department crime lab, where DNA analyst Rachel Grant works, might expand and move to a new location in early 2018.
The Richland County Sheriff’s Department crime lab, where DNA analyst Rachel Grant works, might expand and move to a new location in early 2018. FILE PHOTOGRAPH

If plans fall into place as Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott hopes, his agency’s crime scene investigators and its heralded crime lab will be in a new home by early next year.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department last week got the go-ahead from County Council for a $2.2 million initial expansion that includes buying 24 acres and office buildings that will position the agency to grow decades into the future.

The land and buildings along Shakespeare Road behind department headquarters will house 40 to 50 forensic lab technicians and crime scene investigators, provide vastly enlarged evidence storage space, as well as a site to service department vehicles, Lott said.

It would be the first expansion since the department moved to Two Notch Road from downtown Columbia more than 20 years ago, he said. “The purchase of this property is about the future of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department,” Lott said.

There are no plans to abandon the department’s headquarters building, which sits on nearly four acres along Two Notch, a quarter-mile from the new site, he said.

SCANA Corp., which owns the land, will pay for an appraisal, and a purchase price will be negotiated, according to the sheriff and county administrator Gerald Seals. The land has two buildings, one of which is two stories tall; the other is a single story.

Purchase talks that began in January, when SCANA officials said they would be vacating the property in March, could be finalized by early July, Lott said.

Council on Tuesday, in a nearly unanimous vote, added money to the budget that will allow the sheriff’s department to spend up to $1.3 million for the property and $700,000 to remodel the buildings, both from the fiscal budget that begins July 1, said Councilwoman Dalhi Myers, who made the motion.

The money will come from unspent funds from the construction of the Decker Center and for renovation or relocation of the county courthouse, Seals wrote in a memo to council.

Council still will have to vote on the sheriff’s overall budget, which will include the upgrades, as it does with other county agencies.

Other planned improvements at the new site will cost $975,000 over the next three fiscal years as more units are moved to the location, according to Seals and the sheriff’s chief deputy for administration, Chris Cowan.

Expansion of the lab and crime scene units is substantial. Cowan said the 7,800-square-foot lab and 11 evidence storage trailers take up 15,000 square feet. The lab cannot expand in the headquarters building, he said. At the new location, the lab and storage space would grow to about 97,500 square feet, he said.

Few S.C. sheriff departments have their own forensic labs. Some agencies complain about backlogs at the centralized State Law Enforcement Division lab used by most other departments.

Cowan told council the sheriff’s department lab has “technology that no other agency in the country has.” Using the lab for sheriff’s department cases produces faster results for detectives who don’t have to wait in line for analyses from SLED, Cowan said.

If the pieces fall into place, “About the first of the year, we hope to have the lab, crime scene and evidence stuff moved,” Lott said.