Umatilla County commissioners want to stop Oregon State Police from consolidating its Eastern Oregon crime labs in La Grande. But the clock is ticking, and La Grande city leaders Wednesday night cleared the way for construction of a new state police station and crime lab.

Commissioner Bill Hansell is leading the charge against consolidation. Tuesday he wrote Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, co-chair of the safety subcommittee of the state House Ways and Means committee, urging him to kill the plan.

 “This is very disturbing to say the least, and it makes absolutely no sense to us,” Hansell wrote. “The sheer number of forensic requests in criminal investigations makes you scratch your head and ask, ‘What is the state thinking?’”

Smith said this morning he’s asked Oregon State Police Superintendent Chris P. Brown to provide him with an analysis of the move.

“I want to see it in writing,” Smith said. Policy makers need to see the facts behind the plan, he said. 

The state police operates six crime labs, two in Eastern Oregon in Pendleton and Ontario. The 2011 Legislature ordered the Ontario lab closed and two of its three staff positions eliminated as cost-cutting measures. That order rekindled a decade-old plan to merge the Pendleton and Ontario crime labs into one larger lab in La Grande. 

Building it would take 18 months to three years, according to state police Forensic Division Director Capt. Randy Wampler. The La Grande Urban Renewal Agency voted 7-0 Wednesday to lift city regulations and allow construction to go forward, said Angelika Brooks of the La Grande City Manger Office.

State police numbers show Umatilla County uses the crime lab more than eight other Eastern Oregon counties combined. The Pendleton and Ontario labs received 954 requests in 2009, with 547 out of Umatilla County. That comprises more than 57 percent of the total. With 62 requests from Morrow County, the two neighboring counties account for two-thirds of the total cases at the two forensics labs.

Umatilla County District Attorney Dan Primus said grand juries in the county have heard eight cases involving forensic work in a week; Baker County had eight forensic cases in all of 2009, he said.

“If you look at the numbers, I don’t see how this makes sense,” Primus said of the La Grande move.

Wampler, who acknowledges that Umatilla and Morrow counties generate the most case work, argues the plan makes plenty of sense. Retaining the Pendleton lab poses problems serving law enforcement further east, particularly in Baker and Malheur counties, which is losing the Ontario lab, he said. Case work out of Umatilla and Morrow counties could be processed anywhere, he said. 

“Yes, most of the case work does come from that region,” he said. “We could actually function with one laboratory for the state regarding the case work.”

EOU partner

Wampler stressed the value of partnering with Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. The state police has trouble recruiting and retaining lab technicians in Eastern Oregon, and the crime lab could provide a career path for aspiring technicians, and a place for university interns to work. 

 “Having a direct relationship with the university, we believe, will be a substantial benefit to that laboratory once consolidation occurs and we get it established,” he said.

Primus said the state police should be more concerned with public safety than future careers. Hansell argued the police could partner in Pendleton with Blue Mountain Community College. BMCC President John Turner said the two-year college is interested and could provide interns for lab work.

But he questioned whether the lab could offer enough internships to make a partnership worthwhile for any college.

Also, Primus said, prosecution of some cases will suffer if Pendleton loses its crime lab.

It provides results for some drug tests in a day, he said. But most toxicological tests, including urine analysis, must got to the Clackamas lab. Those results take 45-60 days. Primus said results from a consolidated lab in La Grande may take even longer.

Primus and Hansell said the state police have provided no analysis, other than numbers of cases generated, showing that a consolidated lab in La Grande saves taxpayer money or benefits law enforcement in Eastern Oregon.

Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Robers said local law enforcement and elected officials have chided Wampler for the plan and the manner in which his agency has undertaken it. 

Usually, Roberts said, Oregon State Police seeks local input, but not this time.

“The whole thing is one where there hasn’t been a lot of communication on the part of OSP,” Roberts said. “A change of this magnitude is significant on how we do day-to-day business. There should have been more opportunity for input.”

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