NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) – An impressive turnaround time from the crime lab inside the Wilmington Police Department has the two employees inside in high demand.
The independent forensic facility currently handles blood alcohol tests for nine law enforcement agencies in New Hanover and Brunswick counties. Bethany Pridgen, the lab's manager and only full-time employee, said the results of her operation are spreading as far as Bladen, Columbus and Pender counties.
"Other agencies and other officers are hearing about it, so it's really word of mouth," she said.
The word that's traveling is one of relatively immediate test results. The local lab can complete the necessary tests for a DWI case in less than two weeks, which is a fraction of the six to twelve month wait time for the same information out of Raleigh. High priority cases in the Cape Fear area could have results as soon as three days.
Pridgen and part-time chemist Amy Hutson are not exactly waiting for work. The two completed the testing and paperwork for 241 cases in 2012. That number was 175 a year ago, and 110 in 2010.
The case load will increase even more when the lab is accredited and capable of blood testing for drugs. Pridgen expects final word on accreditation from the American Society of Crime Lab Directors by mid-April, which is well before the July 1, 2013 deadline set by state law.
"There's a huge requirement in our accreditation process to show that we are independent and we're not biased or influenced by the law enforcement community or the courts," said Pridgen.
Both Pridgen and Hutson hope for some new coworkers to help with the workload before accepting additional agencies for testing.
"As we take on more analyses, the demand is just going to keep growing," Hutson said.
A memo from the police chief to the city manager shows two additional full-time chemists and a full-time administrative assistant would cost about $185,000 annually. That amount does not include the $300,000 needed to buy new blood drug analysis equipment.
Pridgen stressed the dollar values are still rough estimates, but insisted the expensive cost on the front end would be paid back with reduced time for court cases. When lab results are ready in time for court, cases do not need to be continued, which keeps officers from spending the day away from their post.
Arresting officers are not the only ones required to testify in court. Rather than wait for lab experts from the State Bureau of Investigation's facility in Raleigh, local courts can call on Pridgen to appear much quicker. In the meantime, she can continue working.
"We can be there within minutes to an hour," she said.
District Attorney Ben David recently mentioned the effort to expand the lab when state lawmakers met with local leaders before returning to Raleigh.
322 Shipyard Boulevard