More law enforcement agencies turning to private crime labs, Oktibbeha Co. Sheriff’s Dept. says it’s a ‘stopgap’

STARKVILLE, Miss. (WCBI) – As the backlog of cases at the Mississippi State Crime Lab continues, more law enforcement agencies are turning to private crime labs, especially for their most pressing investigations.

“There’s dozens of cases that are down there that are waiting on some type of result, whether it’s from a DUI investigation or homicide,” says Operations Captain Brett Watson with the Oktibbeha County Sheriff’s Department.

“I don’t take anything away from our (state) crime lab’s efforts,” he says. “I think they are doing everything they can do with what they have.”

Taking in thousands of cases each year, Cpt. Watson says so many investigations across the state are on hold.

“It may be a piece of evidence that’s the only piece of evidence that we have to work with, that we’re waiting on to see where the case can go from here,” he says.

That’s why he says more law enforcement agencies are turning to private crime labs.

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Department says it started working with private labs in 2020, starting with a murder investigation. Cpt. Watson says the Oktibbeha County Sheriff’s Department has the Columbus Forensic Lab to analyze on nearly 80 percent of its serious drug cases.

“We started using them right off the bat because of the quicker turnaround time,” he says. “Over the course of the years, the sheriff’s department has partnered with them on investigations, have utilized their assets and have assisted them when they require assistance.”

The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department says they use the Columbus Forensic Lab for all their drug evidence. Cpt. Watson says they’ve also partnered with a crime lab in Brandon for more than 20 years for DNA analysis.

“Talking about homicides in particular, victims’ families are waiting on some sort of result,” he says. “It’s trying on them to have to sit and wait and it’s trying on us to have to tell them to be patient.”

However, DNA analysis alone can cost as much as $ 10,000. And while Oktibbeha County can afford it, many other agencies can’t.

“The Mississippi Crime Lab and the good work they do are our ultimate solution,” Cpt. Watson says. “And I think funding them with the equipment and staffing that they need to do as much as humanly possible is the only way out of this problem.”

Earlier in 2021, Mississippi lawmakers approved the creation of six new investigator positions at the state crime lab. They have also discussed increasing funding, but there is no current timetable.