BOSTON - Citing budget cuts, state officials are considering closing the only Western Massachusetts laboratory used to analyze drugs seized by police.
The state Department of Public Health is eyeing possible closure of its laboratory at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The lab, which employs several chemists and an evidence technician, performs 4,000 to 5,000 tests of drugs each year for municipal police departments in Western Massachusetts.
The lab currently has about a two-month backlog of analyses. It analyzes and weighs LSD, cocaine, heroin and other drugs confiscated in criminal cases. The lab's reports are used in trials, grand jury investigations and other criminal proceedings.
In a statement, Joseph Dorant, president of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists, said he is concerned the fiscal crisis in state government could cause the lab to close.
"People don't realize the critical work that happens every day at a lab like this until there are cuts on the table," said Dorant, whose union represents employees at the Amherst lab. "The impact will be felt when cases take longer to prosecute. These are scientists who literally make the streets safer, and we can't afford to lose them."
Kevin M. Burnham, narcotics evidence officer for the Springfield Police Department, said the department takes seized drugs each week to the Amherst lab for testing.
The lab sometimes supplies results in four to five weeks. Burnham said the wait could climb to six to seven months if the department is required to use a lab in the eastern part of the state.
"It's absolutely, positively unbelievable they would close that lab," he said.
Jennifer L. Manley, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public, said the department is looking at a range of options to cut costs, including possible closures.
Manley would not comment on whether the Amherst laboratory is being considered for closure. No employees have been notified they will be laid off, she said.
She said it will take a couple of weeks to figure out how to comply with budget cuts.
The state House of Representatives cut the department's budget for labs to $13.3 million for the fiscal year starting July 1, down 14 percent from this year. Officials said it's unlikely the Senate will restore money.
The Western Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association e-mailed members saying closure of the lab might mean police in the region would need to use a state police crime lab in Sudbury, about an hour's drive from Springfield, according to West Springfield Police Chief Thomas E. Burke.
Burke said it would be awful for police if the lab closes. He said it is another example of Western Massachusetts being shortchanged by Beacon Hill.
"They could care less about us out here," Burke said. "The state stops at (Route) 128."
Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless said he understands budget problems, but closing the lab would significantly affect public safety.
"I'm very concerned about it," said Capeless, who is president of the Massachusetts District Attorney's Association.
Capeless said a bigger backlog will build up if Western Massachusetts police are forced to take controlled substances to a lab in Boston or elsewhere for testing.
Trials could be delayed, he said. Defense lawyers will file more motions to dismiss charges are the grounds that evidence isn't available in a timely way, and prosecutors will seek more postponements.
Northampton Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz said he is opposed to closing the lab. He said it doesn't appear there would be substantial savings.
It might save some money for the state, but it would increase costs and burn up time for local police departments, he said. The shutdown of the lab would also delay justice.
"It doesn't make sense to me," Sienkiewicz said.
By DAN RING
May 9, 2009
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