Warner Robins police hope to make history with new forensics lab

City officials, employees tour nearly completed law enforcement center

jmink@macon.comMarch 28, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- For many city employees, the new law enforcement center means safety, efficiency and working with advanced technology.

But, for Capt. John Lanneau of the Warner Robins Police Department, the building means history.

While city employees and leaders toured the nearly completed police headquarters Thursday, Lanneau stood ready to showcase the forensics laboratory portion of the building at the corner of Watson and Armed Forces boulevards. After it receives accreditation, the local force will be one of the first -- if not the first -- city police department in Georgia to operate its own forensics lab, Lanneau said.

“It’s a historic event to have a forensic lab,” he said. “Our purpose is to help with the investigative process.”

While the department has been working for the past couple of years to establish its own forensics lab, the new 40,523-square-foot building gives the project a necessary boost. The current police department building would not pass inspection for such a laboratory, Lanneau said.

It’s one reason why officials say the nearly $7 million building is essential. (Altogether the project will cost almost $10 million.) A ribbon cutting will be held at the end of April for the two-story, brick building, said Gary Lee, executive director of the Redevelopment Agency, which oversees the project. The building still needs furniture, and some exterior construction is ongoing, but it is mostly finished.

Citing security reasons, city officials did not allow video or photographs to be taken past the lobby of the building.

“For those of you traveling up and down Watson Boulevard, you have literally seen this thing come together,” said Jim Mehserle, of JMA Architecture.

About 30 people got a tour of the building, which is bright and spacious with bulletproof walls in some areas, secure doors, evidence lockers and a system that allows the city to manage its own energy online.

“This really does bring the city into the 21st century,” Mehserle said.

Then, there are the rooms. There are special rooms for the media, property returns, record writing and administration.

A large room with a two-tiered stage is designated for roll-call meetings and training. Another room includes five, glass-enclosed cells -- two large ones for adults and three smaller ones for juveniles -- where violators will be held, in addition to clerk desks and a room for counseling and interrogating. Breathalyzers, fingerprints, identification processes and other in-take tasks will be completed there, Mehserle said.

“I’ve worked in the same building coming up on 26 years,” Capt. Joe Wetherington said. “So, in some aspects, it will be different ... it’s a very well thought-out building.”

Down the hall, a small room is dedicated to a special type of officer -- K-9s. Four tall kennels line the walls, with a spout for bathing the dogs and room for food storage. It’s a step up from the current building, which has no specific area for K-9s to stay. When entering the old building, police officers usually keep their vehicles running and leave the dogs inside, Mehserle said.

“It really didn’t give dogs an appropriate kind of place,” he said. “Now, they have it.”

Administration offices and interview rooms sit upstairs, just down the hall from where officers hope history will be made. The forensics area includes a weapon-testing room, a computer forensics space and plenty of laboratories.

“If you watch ‘CSI,’ this is the ‘CSI area,” Mehserle said.

The weapons-testing room is one of the heaviest rooms in the building, Lanneau said, with thick, bulletproof walls and an estimated 400-pound door. Additionally, an exhaust system helps weapon fumes evaporate.

“You feel a lot more confident if you have ... an AK-47 that you’re firing off inside a room,” Lanneau said.

Across the hallway, a gas closet sits between two laboratories -- one for toxicology and one for blood alcohol testing. The rooms are equipped with hand and eye-washing stations and counter space for equipment. Refrigerated systems also will be installed. Between the rooms, six tanks, which will hold nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen, sit in a storage closet -- chemists will use those gases while running tests.

“This, right here, is history,” Lanneau said.

Currently, such investigations mostly are performed on a state level. One other city police department, in Valdosta, is trying to establish its own forensics lab, Lanneau said.

The department must be in its facility for at least one year before its laboratories can be accredited and the local department is seeking international accreditation. In about 16 months it plans to begin seeking accreditation for its blood alcohol laboratory and then for the toxicology lab. Other labs, such as fingerprinting, computer forensics and others, will be accredited in the future, he said.

The project does not come without equipment and personnel costs -- the department must hire chemists, an additional computer forensic analyst and a crime scene investigator -- but it hopefully will result in more efficient investigations, Lanneau said. In a time when such services have been cut due to a weak economy, it’s important to be able to conduct those tests on a local level, he said.

“For me, the importance of this laboratory is independence,” he said. “I wasn’t quite sure we’d ever see the day when we’d have a laboratory.”

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