West Valley City police forensics team energized by new crime lab
May 05, 2020 12:10PM
By Darrell Kirby
West Valley City Police Forensics Director Amanda Bennett says new lab has improved crime investigations. (Darrell Kirby/City Journals)
By Darrell Kirby | [email protected]
When the West Valley City Police Department moved last fall from its old headquarters to a newly built facility a stone’s throw away, it was a major upgrade for the agency in many ways.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the relocation was the police department’s forensics unit.
Older equipment and tight quarters made the processing and storage of evidence gathered from crime scenes limited at best in the windowless basement of the outdated structure. That sometimes increased the time and lowered the quality of investigations and created a sense of isolation.
“We used to joke about the old ‘Twilight Zone’ and that we were going to come out one day and not know the whole world was gone,” said Amanda Bennett, forensics director for the police department.
There are no likely planetary surprises at the forensics lab on the first floor of the new $25 million police building. The space is bright, climate-controlled, and is bordered on its west side by staff offices with windows.
Bennett says one of the most appreciated additions to the new lab is a ballistics water tank for firearms testing. Spanning the length of several bathtubs, but deeper, the tank allows guns to be fired into the water at various angles to help determine the trajectory of bullets at a crime scene and any residues left when the weapons are discharged. That previously had to be done at a Salt Lake City police facility.
“Just the logistics of packing up evidence, transporting it to another agency, checking it in there, test firing it, and bringing it back was time consuming and not very efficient,” she said.
The new building has a garage where vehicles involved in crimes can be examined for evidence, something that was done off-site in the past. “This allows us a controlled space to bring those vehicles in to that’s close to our home base which has all of our chemicals,” Bennett said.
The previous building had no private area to load or unload evidence and equipment from police vehicles. It usually had to be done in public view in a parking lot. The new lab has a gated, screened area for that procedure.
“The old building was definitely not intended originally to be a forensics laboratory or evidence storage. It was more like a maintenance area that was converted into a forensics lab.”
Another welcome addition to the modern lab is a larger fuming chamber to process evidence for fingerprints. It basically uses Super Glue and water to create vapors which adhere to fingerprints to make them visible. The new chamber can accommodate bigger items such as tires, car parts, bicycles and larger weapons that would not fit in the old unit.
Some of the new equipment in the modern building is tied into the ventilation system where constant air flow “removes any fumes, chemicals and not-so-good smells,” Bennett said. Those odors were merely trapped by internal filters in the old space without totally eliminating them. “It feels cleaner. It feels like we can breathe easier.”
Bennett said a few pieces of equipment made the move from the former headquarters, mostly because they were relatively new. One is a drying chamber, essentially a large cabinet where evidence that is wet is kept. “We have to dry out all our evidence before we book it in or it grows mold, and mold destroys the DNA,” Bennett said. DNA is tested at the state crime lab in Taylorsville since West Valley is not equipped for that.
Plenty of discussions took place in recent decades about erecting a new police department building or finding a better one, but nothing happened. When it was apparent a few years ago the project would actually move forward, Bennett says it became especially real to her when she was asked what she would like to have in a new crime lab. “It really was not only exciting, but a little bit overwhelming.”
The rush of ideas she had became more crystallized by visiting the then under-construction state crime lab nearby. “They were really good about letting me come in during construction to see the things that they really liked, that they didn’t like.” That helped in planning the layout of her future lab. “I was fortunate that I got to be involved in that process,” she added, while acknowledging that not everything on her wish list made the cut.
Some 63,000 items are stored in the new lab, with 1,400 new items and pieces of evidence checked in each month while about 1,000 leave the building during the same period.
The lab is fully secured with cameras and electronic keys that track who enters various rooms so that items don’t disappear or are not handled without authorization.
According to the most recent numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the U.S. Department of Justice, there are more than 400 publicly funded federal, state, and municipal crime labs across the country. They employ over 14,000 full-time personnel.
Bennett is a 16-year veteran of the West Valley lab, including the past 10 as director. She says she and her four forensics investigators, all civilian employees, have been professionally re-energized by the new digs. “It was pretty chaotic at first, but once we got settled in and worked out some of the quirks of the new space, it’s been great.”