The Oregon State Police crime lab in Pendleton is once again faced with an uncertain future.
Local staff learned Wednesday that OSP is considering closing the location and reassigning its six employees to other labs around the state -- in Bend, Central Point, Clackamas and Springfield.
Lt. Gregg Hastings, OSP spokesman, said there's been no final decision in the matter. But Superintendent Richard Evans Jr. did announce the possibility during a meeting of the Umatilla/Morrow County Law Enforcement Administrators Association.
The discussion comes just two years after OSP shelved plans to relocate the Pendleton lab to La Grande and consolidate regional operations with a another former lab based in Ontario. That proposal did not sit well with Eastern Oregon lawmakers and police officials, who successfully argued the move would not be cost-efficient or provide better service.
The Ontario lab was ordered to close by the 2011 Legislature, leaving Pendleton as the only location serving Eastern Oregon.
Keith Kerr, director of the Pendleton crime lab, said the issue now is strictly being driven by the budget. Forensic labs are expensive to operate, he said, and Pendleton is already in need of a new facility.
The lab continues to operate as normal while all options are evaluated, Kerr said. Capt. Ted Phillips, who was recently appointed director of OSP's Forensic Services Division, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, authorities in Umatilla County believe losing the Pendleton crime lab could have a major affect on investigating and prosecuting crimes. District Attorney Dan Primus said his office is on pace this year to file more than 1,000 felony cases, many of which involve processing some kind of forensic evidence.
"It's a whole lot easier to have them right there and accessible," Primus said. "At the drop of a hat, I can be sitting down with a forensic scientist to discuss a case."
Primus has not had the chance to meet yet with Evans, but said keeping the lab in Pendleton will be a top priority.
Sheriff Terry Rowan was at the meeting Wednesday, and said they appreciated Evans appearing in person to provide information.
"I was surprised," Rowan said. "Really, during that meeting, you just want to take a little bit of time to swallow the news and determine what the impacts would be. That's really where we're at now."
Rowan suspects losing the crime lab could slow more investigations down, if they are waiting hours for forensic scientists to arrive on scene driving from places like Bend or the Willamette Valley. Scientists will also have to travel from across the state to testify in local trials, he added.
"The next step is to have some more conversations on the local level with our safety planners, and find out if there's some other solution to the problem," Rowan said.
In addition, Rowan said he would like to see legislators make public safety more of a priority in Oregon in order to maintain important resources needed to keep communities safe. He cited a statistic presented by Evans during the Association of Oregon Counties' public safety summit July 22 that shows Washington State Patrol has 140 officers working the greater Seattle area -- compared to just 80 OSP officers in the Portland metro area.
State Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, has said he will to go to bat to keep the Pendleton crime lab in the community.
"In no uncertain terms, I have let (OSP) know this is unacceptable to me," Hansell said. "It's a disservice to the people of Eastern Oregon."
Bob Jenson, a Pendleton Republican who will retire in 2015 after serving 19 years in the Oregon House, also plans to rally his peers to dig in their heels against losing the crime lab and its family-wage jobs.
"My sentiment on this is it's just another one of those things they're doing at the Salem level, exporting our jobs out of Eastern Oregon," Jenson said. "I personally am just very tired of it, and will be making considerable noise in Salem expressing our displeasure."
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