September 20, 2014

Joint police lab between Columbia, Richland County just makes sense

Fact: The Columbia Police Department’s drug lab was unreliable, so the police chief shut it down.

Fact: The Richland County’s Sheriff’s Department operates a state-of-the art, internationally accredited lab that is, in part, funded by Columbia taxpayers.

Fact: Over the years, Columbia and Richland County have consolidated several services in an effort to reduce duplication and make them more efficient and cost-effective.

Fact: A joint city-county crime lab would produce results prosecutors can rely on in court and would be yet another consolidation effort in taxpayers’ interest.

So why did Columbia City Council reject the idea of merging the city’s failed drug facility with the sheriff’s department’s lab? Perhaps there is an acceptable explanation. If so, we’re still waiting to hear it.

It’s not as if Columbia has a better idea. If it did, it would have adopted that rather than a resolution that — aside from making it clear that a majority of council members don’t want to collaborate with Columbia’s natural ally — only seeks to find a place to store evidence and expresses a desire to build a new police headquarters. Meantime, the city will continue relying on SLED to do its drug analysis.

Quite frankly, we’re puzzled as to how we got to this point. After it was announced that Chief Skip Holbrook had shuttered the city’s lab, all indications were that he and at least some council members favored a partnership with the sheriff’s department. An announcement appeared imminent.

But last week, the council balked. Why?

Considering the city is incapable of doing its own drug analysis and must rely on having it done by an outside agency, what is the problem with partnering with Richland County? We’re sure SLED will continue to do a fine job in the short term, but we can’t imagine a long-term option that’s better than partnering with Richland County. The more the city and county work together to consolidate services, the better it is for taxpayers.

Perhaps some City Council members fear merging labs could reopen the discussion about placing the police department under the sheriff. But that is a decision the council has total control over; as a matter of fact, it nixed that proposal just months ago.

And the fact is that we’re talking about a service the city doesn’t have the capacity or credibility to provide right now. If it’s going to be farmed out, what is wrong with having the sheriff’s department do it?

As Columbia moves forward with its long-term action plan that calls for a new headquarters and evidence storage space, it’s conceivable that it could consider reopening its own lab. But such duplication is unnecessary. Columbia should revisit the proposal of a joint-use lab agreement with Richland County. Such an arrangement would be in line with city-county pacts on the operation of the jail, animal shelter and fire service.

Other than an apparent unwillingness to partner with the sheriff’s department, we see no reason for the council to nix this proposal. Turf concerns and petty politics must not be allowed to trump common sense and good stewardship.

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