Funding for DNA Lab Moves Forward

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The nonprofit Community Foundation of the Verdugos is hoping to sustain the Verdugo Regional Crime Laboratory’s funding through an initiative that is more than halfway to its $250,000 goal. Titled the Glendale-Burbank DNA Justice Project, the Foundation seeks to raise funds to help the laboratory purchase more equipment for DNA analysis at a time when the lab’s federal funding is running out.

Located at Glendale Police Dept. headquarters, the Verdugo Regional Crime Laboratory has served the Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena police departments since January 2014, processing over 400 DNA samples during a six-month trial phase period. In 2008, Congressman Adam Schiff secured $1.5 million in federal funds to establish the lab, but the second of those grants totaling $500,000 is set to expire on March 31. Now police and members of the Community Foundation of the Verdugos are hoping to retain and purchase technology used to identify suspects as well as exonerate the innocent.

On Wednesday night, Foundation members and police officers hosted a VIP tour of the laboratory facilities, allowing members of the public an inside look at the equipment and personnel utilized by the region’s police.

Lee Wochner, vice president of the Foundation’s board of directors, said that the project stemmed from the Foundation’s search for a project that would “have a large impact on the community.”

Wochner shared stories of local crimes which were solved quickly thanks in part to suspect DNA recovered by police and analyzed by the technicians of the Verdugo Regional Crime Laboratory, including a sexual assault on a teenage girl by her teacher, a car thief identified by DNA left on a discarded cigarette, and a murder charge which was overturned due to new DNA evidence, setting an innocent man free after 12 years of incarceration.

Foundation members and law enforcement officials believe that the funding will not only help keep the laboratory stocked with the equipment necessary to supplement local police, but also allow the lab to become self-sufficient and contract out to other law enforcement agencies.

Glendale Police Chief Robert Castro called the lab “a national model” for law enforcement strategies of the future.

“When we have less personnel, we have to find ways to work smarter. This lab is a shining example of that,” said Castro. “Every week, we’re having successes identifying suspects as well as eliminating potential suspects so that we can maximize our time and resources. The lab, from DNA to fingerprints to forensics, all comes together to help us do our job in a much more efficient way.”

Burbank Police Chief Scott LaChasse said having an easily accessible crime lab is far more effective in solving crimes, preventing what can be months of delay when having to rely on other labs.

“That’s not good for us. That’s not good for the victims. That’s why it’s incredibly important for us to have this capability internally.”

LaChasse said he hoped the crime lab would also play a preventive role in combatting crime in the region, by simple virtue of its existence.

“I would hope that [because] some of the folks in the community know that our two cities have DNA capabilities, it would prevent them from wanting to commit crimes,” LaChasse said. “It doesn’t just make the job easier. It also makes the community safer.”

Board Member Michael Cusumano praised the work of local police departments, while noting that living in a relatively safe area can lead the populace to become complacent to the needs of law enforcement.

“We’re so fortunate to live in communities where crime is at such low levels and, a lot of the time, we take it for granted,” said Cusumano. “The more we learned about this and how important this is and what great value that brings to all of us as residents, business owners and property owners, it became the easiest decision to support it.”

The Cusumano Family Foundation pledged $50,000 towards the cause. According to Community Foundation of the Verdugos CEO Edna Karinski, the Foundation reached nearly half of its target by the end of the event, with help from the Glendale Police Foundation and anonymous donors.

At the March 3 Glendale City Council meeting, the council voted to approve two resolutions that would commit funds to purchasing reagents, supplies, software, equipment, and services for the operation of the laboratory. One resolution will provide $500,000 over the course of five years. The other will provide $42,250 for the remaining lab expenses for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

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