Well, that didn’t take long.  The other day, we highlighted the efforts of Tom Charles and John Kasich to expand the Highway Patrol from its traditional role of enforcing Ohio’s traffic laws into criminal patrols.  We asked, “What could go wrong?”

We didn’t realize that the newspapers would answer our question so quickly: criminals will go free because the Highway Patrol was unprepared to handle and analyze the evidence the Highway Patrol and Governor Kasich so proudly displayed for the media (pictured here).

The Springfield News-Sun broke this story with the headline, “Crime lab backlog keeps alleged criminals on the street.”  According to the report, drug cases have been dismissed because evidence was not processed by the crime lab in a timely manner.

(A quick note for those concerned with Media Bias. The Dispatch, picked up the story, but softened the headline to:  “Patrol’s crime lab faulted for slow testing.”  More evidence of the “soft” reporting by the Dispatch is found by comparing the sub-headlines from Springfield and Columbus.  The News-Sun:  “If tests from Highway Patrol lab arrive too late, case can be dismissed.”   The Dispatch uses a passive voice:  “Drug analyses taking months, allowing suspects to remain on streets, prosecutors complain.”)

The worst case:  a case was dismissed against Timothy Wayne Jones Jr.  Jones was arrested Feb. 20, 2011 by the Highway Patrol.  The trooper did a good job – he found that Jones had a loaded semiautomatic handgun and 1.4 grams of crack cocaine inside his vehicle.  The problem is that the case was dismissed because the county prosecutor’s office did not receive the evidence back from the Highway Patrol’s crime lab in a timely manner.

After his release, according to news reports, Jones shot two people following an argument and a subsequent altercation at in the street.  Last October, Jones was charged with two counts of aggravated murder.  He was arrested in January in Alabama.

The Jones case is a horrible and tragic event.  If he is convicted, Jones should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. Our thoughts and prayers are and should be with the families of the victims.  But let’s not lose sight of the big picture:  had the evidence been processed in a timely manner, Jones likely would have been in prison or, at a minimum, subject to court-ordered supervision.

Jones’ tragedy was avoidable.  Jones went free because the leadership of the Highway Patrol demonstrated a reckless disregard for public safety.  How?  By undertaking a sustained effort to increase criminal patrols outside its traditional role without making sure that sufficient resources and support to obtain convictions was in place.

The Highway Patrol notes that prescription pills seizures increased by 46 percent, cocaine seizures increased by 663 percent, heroin seizures increased by 69 percent, and marijuana seizures increased by 7 percent.  Yet the Highway Patrol did practically nothing to increase the staff and capacity of the crime lab to handle this increased caseload.  (In contrast, the crime lab operated by the Attorney General’s office had added staff and increased the use of robots to reduce its evidence processing times.)  The result was predictable.  Cases have been dismissed.  Criminal have gone free.

The backlog at the Highway Patrol crime lab was well known to the civilian leadership both in Public Safety and the Governor’s Office.  In August the Kasich Administration highlighted the problem of the backlog at the Highway Patrol Crime Lab on its lean.ohio.gov website.  A press release highlights anticipated “gains in efficiency thanks to” a series Kaizen-driven efficiency review.  The claim in August was that the new approach would save money, reduce turnaround time for evidence review from “83 days to approximately 14 days” and threat “the backlog, at 4,069 cases before the team put Kaizen to work, will be eliminated.”

The gains in efficiency have not materialized.  According to the News-Sun, the Patrol now claims that the turnaround time for evidence has gone up, to about 146 days on average.  Apparently the long-term goal has changed to, from 14 days to 60 days.

About the 146 day delay – it will inevitably lead to more dismissals.  Ohio law requires that felony criminal cases be brought to trial within 90 days of an arrest, if the person is in jail.  If the case is not ready, it must be dismissed.  This means that if the Highway Patrol’s “average” operations continue, almost every drug arrest that they have highlighted recently will be dismissed.

When the Highway Patrol presented the proposal to increase criminal patrols to the civilian leadership, the civilian leadership had a responsibility to ask, “do you have the resources to make sure that the people you arrest will be convicted?”  If the answer was no, then the civilian leadership had the responsibility to make sure those resources were in place before allowing the program to proceed.

Instead, Kasich happily posed with the seized drugs and threatened a tough crackdown on drug dealers.  (OK, he actually only threatened “severe warnings”.)  It turns out that this crackdown is good only for press releases and photo ops.

We anticipate that the Highway Patrol will use this “scandal” to ask for more money.  As Joe noted in regards to security responsibilities, that is what they usually do.  But we have a better idea.  The Republicans who claim to value efficiency – such as the folks in the Governor’s office – should be asking why the State of Ohio has two independent crime labs.  One lab is operated by the Attorney General, and one by the Highway Patrol.  It seems obvious that a lot of money could probably be saved by consolidating these labs.  At least this is something to look into, right?

Let’s be clear about something.  It may seem like we are picking on the Highway Patrol recently.  We are not.  We are reacting to the news in the main stream media, including the self-serving articles in the Dispatch likely pushed by Kasich and the Highway Patrol’s leadership.   The rank and file Troopers who risk their lives every day to make these arrests always have had our full and complete support, and they always will.  (And we are sure that the employees of the crime lab are busting their butts to make sure cases are not dismissed.)

No, the problem is that the civilian leadership of the Highway Patrol, including Governor Kasich and Director Charles, is not serving the troopers well.  The civilian leadership is pursuing expanded jurisdiction and arrests because, it seems, they like the good press that comes from posing in front of piles of seized drugs.  But, if they refuse to provide adequate support for the troopers who make those arrests, and cases get dismissed, then they are asking troopers to risk their lives for nothing.  And that is wrong.