Crime lab reorganization underway with Macon-Bibb merger

lfabian@macon.comJanuary 27, 2014 

When Dennis Hagerman joined the forensics division of the Bibb Sheriff’s Office about 11 years ago, his transfer doubled its staff to two.

Now as the captain in charge of the unit, Hagerman supervises 12 people, most of them transfers from the Macon Police Department.

“We’re a fairly small unit, and having personalities and people who can work together is really crucial,” Hagerman said. “And we have a good mix right now.”

The sheriff’s office now operates two labs, one in the old GBI Division of Forensic Sciences at the corner of Oglethorpe and Second streets, which the county took over in 2010. The other is the former Macon Police Crime Lab, which shares a building with the old precinct office on Houston Avenue.

Just like a couple marrying late in life and merging two homes, there is a lot of sorting and organizing to do.

The sheriff’s office also inherited 600 firearms, about half of which have to be ballistics tested for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

With consolidation less than a month old, Hagerman already predicts triple the workload analyzing latent prints, such as finger and palm impressions.

“The biggest logistical thing is getting a work flow where everyone is on the same page and we have a daily plan of operation,” Hagerman said.

Since Jan. 1, both of the print analyzers are working in the same office at the downtown lab adjacent to the Bibb Law Enforcement Center.

Putting them in the same room will allow the county to let go of one of the specialized computer lines needed to connect to the network to match prints, and it will provide the opportunity for peer reviews, Hagerman said.

The sheriff’s office is in the process of organizing a local database of finger and palm prints to expedite identification of jail inmates who might be giving a false name.

The GBI’s network goes down a couple of hours overnight to update, so having 50,000 local records continually accessible will help avoid processing delays, he said.

The Bibb sheriff’s office also does latent print analysis for 32 other agencies, including the FBI and GBI.

The Bibb forensic unit is also charged with gathering other physical evidence from crime scenes, analyzing the evidence, documenting it and storing it.

One of the major tasks of the merger has been coming up with one standardized system from two.

Hagerman also plans training in the coming weeks so that all of the technicians will be certified and familiar with the equipment from both departments.

The county’s lab was already equipped to process prints difficult to see with traditional dusting.

While the crime technicians can check for probable traces of blood or other body fluids, they do not have the capability to test for DNA.

In the future, Hagerman hopes to be able to hire a chemist to do drug testing at the local labs.

They now identify marijuana using chemicals and microscopes, but all other drugs are sent to the GBI.

The expansion could save money by reducing the time that probationers stay in jail pending completion of drug testing, which can take the GBI up to two months, Hagerman said.

Ballistics testing is also conducted at the downtown lab, which is equipped with a water tank left behind by the GBI. Technicians fire guns into the tank, recover the bullets and note the distinctive patterns, which are fed into another database.

Last year, the old GBI medical examiner’s coolers and autopsy room were renovated into office and storage space,

Similar renovation and restructuring is planned for the Houston Avenue building that also houses the gang squad. Testing equipment will be moved from the garage into the main building.

Both buildings will continue to take in evidence from officers around the clock and store items needed for prosecution. Secured rooms are full of weapons, drugs, televisions and other personal property recovered at crime scenes.

A mammoth job will be to go through dozens of boxes of evidence files collected over decades.

Hagerman said once everything is reviewed, he can appeal to a judge to allow for some items to be destroyed or sold.

“It’s a monumental task right now, but I’m hoping in the next few months we’ll be in much better shape.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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