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Director of New Orleans' New Crime Lab Has Big Plans

Dr. Shamika Kelley, director of New Orleans' crime lab, outlined a plan to get the new facility up and running, returning a DNA testing-equipped crime lab to New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

People on a decorated street in New Orleans.
(TNS) — On her eighth day on the job, Dr. Shamika Kelley, director of New Orleans' crime lab, outlined a plan to get the new facility up and running, returning a DNA-testing equipped crime lab to New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

She did not specify a timeline, but an ordinance adopted by New Orleans City Council in March 2022 mandates the crime lab earn accreditation by the end of 2025.

"I know everyone's wondering, 'When?'" Kelley said. "I have the same questions. We're still making those assessments. We're going to go into planning mode."

A four-step plan

During a press briefing Tuesday, Kelley outlined a four-step plan to win accreditation by the ANSI National Accreditation Board for DNA testing, crime scene investigation and firearms analysis at the five-story, $25 million lab on Gravier Street.

First, she worked with New Orleans Civil Service Department to revise 15 positions for the crime lab, a workplace historically plagued with high turnover and low morale. Salaries for the new positions start at $65,569 for a DNA analyst intern position, according to the City of New Orleans' job portal.

So far, the jobs have netted 30 applicants, but none have been hired yet, according to Civil Service Director Amy Trepagnier.

"My plan is to get the right people in the right places," Kelley said.

Second, Kelley will order equipment and configure the crime lab to do DNA work. Third, she will write documentation, including standard operating procedures and training materials. Finally, she will apply for crime lab accreditation.

On Jan. 18, the accreditation board completed an initial remote review of the crime lab's standard operating procedure and approved the continuation of the accreditation process, according to NOPD spokesperson Karen Boudrie.

The board will do a full, on-site assessment in August — "a deep dive into how we do our processes," Kelley said.

The doctor is in

In hiring Kelley earlier in January, NOPD ended a years-long, scandal-ridden search for a permanent lab director and cleared a major hurdle to the crime lab's launch.

A LaPlace native, Kelley arrived at the NOPD via the Houston Forensic Science Center, where she worked for 12 years as a DNA analyst and supervisor. She earned a bachelor's degree in biological sciences from Louisiana State University, a master's degree in forensics and investigative genetics from the University of North Texas Health Science Center, and a Ph.D. in criminal justice from Sam Houston State University.

She has experience with backlog reduction initiatives, according to the NOPD.

A mounting crisis

New Orleans' backlog of untested DNA evidence has once again approached crisis levels. The NOPD sends all DNA evidence to the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab, which in May 2022 had more than 73,000 untested samples, according to public records that University of New Orleans professor Skip Gallagher obtained through a request and shared with The Times-Picayune.

Since Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters inundated the NOPD crime lab in 2005, the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab in Baton Rouge has handled all DNA evidence testing. The UNO Research & Technology Park lab, which conducts drug chemistry and advanced firearms analysis for the NOPD, is not equipped to test DNA evidence, but the new crime lab will be, in addition to housing evidence and maintaining drug chemistry, ballistics and advanced crime scene capabilities.

Originally scheduled to be held at the new NOPD crime lab and evidence facility at 2761 Gravier St., the Tuesday morning press conference was moved to NOPD headquarters at the last minute as officials cited ongoing construction hazards.

© 2023 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.