Yakima County Sheriff shares progress on local crime lab

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. — Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell believes a newly-funded local crime lab could begin assisting investigators as early as late winter or early spring, depending on the time it takes to hire crime analysts and purchase high-tech equipment.

“We want this thing to be as successful as possible,” Udell said.

Yakima County Commissioners have unanimously signed off on using $2.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding for the local crime lab, with participating law enforcement agencies contributing additional funding.

Udell is serving as the chairperson of the the chair of the newly-formed Local Crime Lab Operations Board, made up of representatives from area law enforcement agencies involved in the creation of the crime lab.

According to Udell, the board will manage day-to-day operations, while the Yakima Valley Conference of Governments takes care of administrative duties. He said hiring analysts and purchasing equipment are a priority.

“The Board will finalize job descriptions and convene an interview panel of chiefs, who will select the analysts they’d like to hire,” officials said in a news release. “These analysts will partner with the region’s participating detectives on a day-to-day basis.”

Participating agencies include the sheriff’s office and the Grandview, Granger, Moxee, Selah, Sunnyside, Tieton, Toppenish, Union Gap, Wapato and Zillah police departments.

KAPP-KVEW reached out to Yakima Police Department regarding its decision not to participate in the creation of the local crime lab and was provided with a letter sent by YPD Chief Matt Murray on Oct. 5, 2022 to Yakima City Manager Bob Harrison.

In the letter, Murray said it doesn’t make sense for taxpayers to fund crime analyst positions for the whole county when the city already employs its own crime analysts. Additionally, he said many of the services the crime lab will have are already provided for free by the state.

“One of the primary drivers of this crime lab proposal is the extreme lag time on getting evidence returned by the state. This is a real issue. However, I believe it is best addressed through our elected state officials (expanding the state crime lab systems and their capacities) by building a Central Washington State Crime Lab to serve communities from Wenatchee to the Tri-Cities,” Murray said in the letter.

According to Udell ,while the Yakima Police Department is not participating or helping to provide funding for the lab, they will likely be able to access its services in the future on a fee schedule.

Udell said new equipment being purchased for the crime lab — particularly the rapid DNA machine — could mean the difference between getting a suspect off the streets quickly and them remaining free to commit more crimes.

“The big reason behind doing this, of course, is the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab is very, very busy,” Udell said. “Almost everything we send them is months or even years before it gets back.”

Udell said having the rapid DNA machine on hand means they’ll be able to compare suspects’ DNA with any evidence found at a crime scene and get results within an hour to help them quickly determine whether it’s likely the suspect was at the scene.

“Then we can use that DNA as a preemptive part of the probable cause for an arrest,” Udell said.

However, he said the DNA results from the local crime lab will only be used as a first step to get new leads on an investigation. Before a case goes to trial, the state crime lab will process the evidence again and double check the results.

“When you’re going to deprive somebody of their freedom for a long time, the evidence has to be as perfect as possible,” Udell said.

Udell said the lab will temporarily be housed inside a sheriff’s office substation in Zillah, which isn’t ideal. He said to maintain the lab’s independence, they’ll be making short-term changes and looking for a better location for the long-term.

“We’re going to have to modify the building so that they have an entrance and a portion of it that no one else can access,” Udell said. “So the deputies can’t go in there and no one can go in there. That’s the only way to do it.”

Udell said one possibility could be establishing the local crime lab somewhere near wherever the new sheriff’s office ends up being located. He said county officials are looking into potential spaces.

“A likely location is that unused jail by the fairgrounds and so we’re looking into remodeling that for basically the Yakima County Criminal Justice Center,” Udell said. “A variety of agencies might go in there.”