Now in Development — CSI: Capitol Hill

Posted January 26, 2007 at 3:37pm

Dealing with rape tests, blood samples and anthrax is no easy job: It’s dangerous, unpleasant and the neighbors may not want you around.

So goes the story of the Washington, D.C., forensics lab, which was conceived about six years ago as a way to consolidate investigations and quicken lab tests. But the building has had troubles on its way to being built — primarily in the quest to find money to pay its $220 million price tag and a willing neighborhood to house it.

But now District officials say the lab is on a faster track to being built. By the end of 2007, plans of the building should be done, said City Administrator Dan Tangherlini. Construction hopefully will begin soon after and the building completed about three years later, he said. The long-awaited location: the site of the current 1st district police headquarters, near the intersection of Fourth and E streets Southwest. The police station probably will move to the site of the old Washington Post printing press, at 225 Virginia Ave. SE.

While the city has secured $150 million over a five-year period, the other $75 million will have to come from the federal government, Tangherlini said. And depending on how much money comes through, the plan might have to be revised.

“We have a bit of a chicken and egg problem,” he said, but “I think we’ll keep chipping away at it and hope that the federal government recognizes the value not only to the 600,000 residents and citizens here but also the million-plus people who work here and the numerous visitors.”

Most cities have their own crime lab — or at least a state one, said Bill Vosburgh, the lab’s new program manager. But D.C. is forced to send out its DNA samples, crime evidence and drug testing to federal agencies such as the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration. And that means long waits and negotiated tests.

“If we need something really, really badly, they’ll do it for us really quickly,” Tangherlini said. However, police are forced to pick and choose. “What’s really the story is how much we don’t send because everything is essentially a favor.”

The new lab will condense almost everything needed to solve a crime into one place: testing capabilities, the medical examiner’s office and even the Pretrial Services Agency. Hopefully, “old cases and cold cases” will be re-examined and solved, and the crime rate will decrease, Tangherlini said. Furthermore, outbreaks of viruses such as influenza and tuberculosis can be studied, he said.

Unlike two years ago — when the city first looked at the Capitol Hill area as a potential site — residents aren’t furious at the idea of having the lab near their homes. Instead, they’re waiting to hear more about the plans and about how the city will keep dangerous substances such as anthrax out of the neighborhood, said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner David Sobelsohn, who represents the area directly east of the planned site.

“People are concerned about it, but I think the best adjective to use right now is apprehensive,” he said, also admitting that the idea isn’t exactly alluring. “That doesn’t look to us like an improvement for our neighborhood.”

However, Southwest residents are more worried about the relocation of the police station than about the lab itself, he said. Such a strong police presence is prized in a neighborhood high in crime, especially when the nearest grocery store is a long walk.

“We’re not going to feel quite as comfortable when it’s on Virginia Avenue … as when it’s in our neighborhood,” he said. Residents are pushing for a police substation to be put in its place.

But the move is still a ways off. Plans for the building are complex and expensive, forcing D.C. officials to start from scratch rather than build onto an existing structure. Plumbing, electricity, ventilation — everything becomes more complicated and important in such a secure lab.

That security will be at biosafety level 3, meaning the lab will be one step below the most secure level, but can still handle some substances that might be used in bioterrorism incidents. It also will be able to do tests that will speed up investigations. For example, while currently a gun with a bloody fingerprint would first have to go to the existing D.C. firearms lab to test the shell casing and then to the FBI to test the blood and identify the fingerprint, the planned lab would make it possible to do all three in the same building, Vosburgh said.

Less shuffling around means quicker convictions and acquittals, Tangherlini said.

“We think this is really critical to the next step of crime reductions,” he said.

And although the lab’s classification means it can test for dangerous biological substances, Tangherlini dismissed any fears, stressing that no such substances will be stored on site and the capability will be used very rarely.

“You know, people have electricity in their homes, and that could catch things on fire, and they have gas, and that’s a volatile substance,” he said. “It’s not an appropriately placed fear.”