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Gotta Catch ‘Em All! The Highs and Lows of the Columbus Forensic Lab

BY JOHN DOUGLAS

This is the first in a three-part series exploring the Columbus Forensic Lab.

Part 1
Getting to Know the Columbus Forensic Lab

The Columbus Forensic Lab is the razor’s edge between freedom and prison for many lawbreakers in the Golden Triangle.  When a case comes down to the evidence, Columbus’ highly trained analysts are the playmakers who bring home the convictions.

Columbus Forensic Lab Director Austin Shepherd is backed by chemists Claudette Gilman (left) and Xin Xu (right)

Columbus Forensic Lab Director Austin Shepherd is backed by chemists Claudette Gilman (left) and Xin Xu (right)

The Columbus Forensic Lab is the brainchild of Director Austin Shepherd.  Hired by the Columbus Police Department in January 2005 to enhance the department’s forensic capablities, Shepherd began implementing a plan that he had been developing since 2006.  Taking over a former Columbus Fire Department facility in the small plaza adjacent to the CPD, Shepherd, now-Corporal Bill Smith, several firefighters and police officers remodelled the building.   By knocking out some walls and moving others, the crew spent five months in early 2008 converting an empty business space into one of the top forensics labs in the state.  The creation of the lab was facilitated by former Columbus Police Chief Joseph St. John early in his days in the Friendly City.
The lab has undergone two changes in the years since its creation, an expansion in 2011, which doubled the size of the lab, and a remodel to update in October 2012.  With each change the lab has marched ever forward, implementing new technologies and techniques for cornering those who do not abide by the law.
The lab works cases for law enforcement agencies across the region.  According to Shepherd, “We have worked cases for agencies as far south as Gulfport and even a few cases for Louisiana agencies. As far north as Batesville. But we regularly work cases for the Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Monroe county law enforcement agencies. West Point has said they are going to start using us and Tupelo uses us for digital forensics. We have approximately ten agencies that use us regularly.”
But, as many cases as the lab processes every month, Shepherd said they are severely understaffed and woefully under financed.  Last fiscal year, the lab was denied the budget to employ a much needed digital analyst for their Computer Forensics division.  Without a dedicated digital analyst, the list of pending electronic crimes cases pile higher and higher, leaving child pornographers and online sexual predators free to continue their crimes.  Shepherd hopes that the city’s budgetary restraints on the lab will loosen in the near future, allowing him to hire the staff needed to operate the labat its fullest potential.
In late 2012, CPD Officer Bill Smith, who has been with Shepherd throughout the establishment and operation of the lab, was promoted to the rank of corporal with the department.  This promotion meant Smith was headed back to the streets for a more first-hand handling of crimes.  Smith’s departure left a gaping hole in the Columbus Forensic Lab.  In January 2013, Shepherd was able to hire two forensic chemists to help process the massive number of drug and fingerprint cases that flow through the lab every day.
Chemists Xin Xu and Claudette Gilman joined the lab and hit the ground running, Shepherd said.  With Xu taking point in the lab, Gilman took over the evidence lockers at the Columbus Police Department.  Through their work, the lab has gained a newfound recognition among top-level law agencies, such as the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics (MBN) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Shepherd said he wants to continue the lab’s growth by expanding their facilities further and hiring additional staff, but this will all depend on the budget decisions made by Columbus Police Chief Selvain McQueen and the Columbus City Council.

Next Week:
Touring the Forensic Lab


Q & A:

Austin Shepherd
Forensic Lab Director

Austin Shepherd -- Forensic Lab Director

Austin Shepherd — Forensic Lab Director

How did you become interested in this type of work?
While studying anthropology at Miss. State, I discovered Forensic Anthropology which led to my interest in crims scene investigations. Crime scene investigation methodology closeley resembles archaeological methodology.
Why did you choose this career?
I enjoy the application of science to real world problems and the challenge of finding solutions, and answers to investigative questions.
What type of education and/or training were required for this job?
At least a bachelor’s degree in a closely-related field, but at our labs we employ master’s degree or above A lot of continuing education in job specific methods.
What kinds of things are you required to do as part of your job?
Administration, QA/QC, crime scenes, fingerprint analysis and comparison, video analysis, cell phone analysis.
What do you like best about your job?
Every day presents new challenged and ideas. Working with intelligent people comparing ideas.
What kind of personal satisfaction do you get from your job?
Knowing that I might have made some difference for the good/benefit of my community.
What changes do you see in this area within the next 5-10 years?
Nationwide standardization for all fields. Mandatory lab accreditation for all forensics labs.


 Xin Xu

Xin Xu -- Forensic Chemist

Xin Xu — Forensic Chemist

Forensic Chemist

How did you become interested in this type of work?
During study, learned forensic chemistry is one type of applied chemistry. I can make use of my education and skills in chemistry.
Why did you choose this career?
Help solve cases and crimes. Help strengthen community safety.
What kinds of things are you required to do as part of your job?
Analyze physical evidence such as controlled substances. Provide expert testimony in court.
What do you like best about your job?
Apply my knowledge and skills to solve the case and identify unknown evidence. Continue training and education through the career.
What kind of personal satisfaction do you get from your job?
Benefit the public. Solve complicated or unprecedented cases.
What changes do you see in this area within the next 5-10 years?
For the area of Forensic Science, incorporate new technologies, such as methods of fast analysis and low cost.


 

Claudette Gilman
Property & Evidence Coordinator, Forensic Chemist

Claudette Gilman -- Property and Evidence Coordinator, Forensic Chemist

Claudette Gilman — Property and Evidence Coordinator, Forensic Chemist

How did you become interested in this type of work?
In high school, I found all sciences to be interesting, chemistry in particular. Forensics allows me to apply what I have learned in a practical rather than theoretical manner.
Why did you choose this career?
After college I originally began working in an industrial lab, but my real passion was for forensics.
What kinds of things are you required to do as part of your job?
QA/QC, property and evidence coordinator, drug screens, maintain integrity of the chain of custody, drug chemistry, presentations to introductory forensic science classes.
What do you like best about your job?
I never know what to expect; new challenges arise daily.
What kind of personal satisfaction do you get from your job?
Knowing that what I’ve worked so hard to learn may help others in their investigative work even if only in some small way.
What changes do you see in this area within the next 5-10 years?
Mandatory accreditation for all forensics labs; all labs will have a standard to follow.

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