Future of Columbia Police Department's drug analysis lab still unclear

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It has been several days since the Columbia Police Department's drug analysis lab was shut down and nearly 200 cases handed over to the Richland County Sheriff's Department.

Some city leaders would like the police department to beef up its own capabilities and resources.

Others suggest it might be best to partner with other agencies including the Richland County Sheriff's Department.

Still there are many unresolved questions as city officials try to sort out the mess involving operations of the police department's drug lab.

Columbia police Chief Skip Holbrook, summed up his first 21 weeks in charge of the often-troubled department.

"I feel like I've been you know, juggling bowling balls since I've been here," Holbrook said at a council committee meeting Wednesday.

One of the toughest challenges for Holbrook so far has been trying to figure out how his agency managed to process hundreds of drug possession cases with only one chemist on staff.

Normally, there would be two.

But in June 2012, the city's senior analyst, Melissa Hendricks, quit the job she'd held for more than eight years.

Police say there was personal conflict with her junior co-worker, Brenda Frazier.

Hendricks' departure left a vacancy that is still unfilled.

That's a problem because drug cases need peer review or a second opinion to hold up in court.

With the opening review of Columbia cases was turned over to a regional pool, but that effort disintegrated again due in part to what Holbrook calls Frazier's inability to accept criticism.

Frazier resigned after Holbrook closed the lab, leaving hundreds of cases under new scrutiny.

About 190 of those cases are being re-tested by the Richland County Sheriff's Department, an arrangement Mayor Steve Benjamin suggested Wednesday should be further explored.

"It's in the best interests not just of the people of Columbia but in this region to find ways to work together on every project," said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. "This is obviously an opportunity."

Others on council said a solution may be simpler.

Councilman Moe Baddourah said the city should just hire two new chemists.

"The actual system works," Baddourah said. "And it's designed to work within the court system and the prosecutors and the judges. So why change that? Why can't you just find two chemists?"

Holbrook said that's not as easy as it appears.

The senior chemist opening hasn't produced a candidate since the chief got it posted May 8.

Formalizing a partnership with the county would give the city time to look at a long-term plan that might involve turning property on Busby Street in north Columbia into a police facility that could include a more advanced drug lab.

Copyright 2014 WIS. All rights reserved.