Gov. Greg Abbott asked the Texas Department of Public Safety on Friday morning to retract the recent announcement that it would begin charging local law enforcement agencies to use the state’s forensic crime labs.
On July 20, DPS shocked the law enforcement community by announcing in a letter that it would begin charging local agencies for the previously free use of state crime labs, which perform tests like alcohol analysis and DNA testing. The department emphasized that the policy change was mandated by the Texas Legislature in the state’s budget, according to the letter.
"DPS’ crime lab is vital to the public safety of Texas," Abbott said in a letter to DPS Director Steven McCraw. “Under no circumstances will I allow the 13 crime labs that DPS operates across the state to be underfunded. However, I firmly believe it is premature to charge a fee at this time.”
The 2018-19 Texas budget approved by legislators this year will remove almost $12 million from DPS’s annual budget to run the state crime labs, mostly used by smaller, rural law enforcement agencies that don’t have their own labs or funds to use private ones. To make up for the loss, the budget indicates the state can charge law enforcement agencies fees to conduct forensic testing up to the nearly $12 million and use that money for the labs.
In response, DPS planned to begin charging fees in September and put out a preliminary cost sheet for certain tests last week, with DNA analysis expected to cost $550 per case.
Abbott said the budget doesn’t mandate the collection of fees, however, and the nearly $63 million set aside for DPS forensic testing will “ensure the crime lab will operate at full capacity well into the next biennium.”
DPS did not immediately respond to request for comment for this article on Friday.
The announcement to begin charging local agencies last week outraged many small, rural law enforcement agencies, which rely on the state for forensic testing. One North Texas sheriff announced he would begin charging DPS to house state prisoners in his county jail to make up for the costs, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Before Abbott’s announcement, several Texas House Democrats sent a letter to the Legislative Budget Board asking if some of the department’s $800 million in funding for border security could be reallocated to keep the state from charging local agencies for testing.
“We are concerned by the lack of transparency the Department has exhibited to local law enforcement over this decision. Prosecutors and sheriffs were not given adequate notice prior to the Department’s sudden assessment of a fee on what has become an increasingly critical component of modern law enforcement investigations,” wrote state Reps. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio, Tracy King of Batesville, Sergio Muñoz of Palmview, Alfonso "Poncho" Nevárez of Eagle Pass, Mary González of Clint, César Blanco of El Paso, Terry Canales of Edinburg, and Justin Rodriguez of San Antonio Thursday.
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