Word that the Omaha Fire Department would stop processing evidence through the county crime lab was the result of a miscommunication between the city and county, Fire Chief Mike McDonnell says.
The miscommunication stems from a directive from the Mayor's Office regarding Fire Department spending.
Last week a fire captain delivering evidence to the Douglas County Sheriff's Office crime lab asked employees there to wait to process it, citing the Mayor's Office directive.
But they were not told the Fire Department would stop using the lab entirely, said McDonnell, who received approval from the Mayor's Office to speak on the matter.
McDonnell said the battalion chief for the department's investigations unit gave an order that “we have to get approval before we can have the evidence processed, because it costs $50 every time they process a piece of evidence.”
Marty Bilek, Mayor Jean Stothert's chief of staff, said the Fire Department never got a specific order about processing evidence, just a general order requiring approval for most spending.
“Since they're so over budget, we wanted to scrutinize some of their transactions,” he said.
Bilek said the Fire Department can run arson evidence as it always has, regardless of cost — but with an understanding that all expenses are being closely watched. If evidence can be processed more efficiently, without sacrificing quality, he said, “we'll come back later to review that.”
“We want them to submit evidence just like they do now,” he said. “Evidence collection in an arson case is going to get a very high priority, always.”
McDonnell said the Fire Department budgets about $4,000 a year to process arson evidence — a small item in a proposed $96.6 million budget. But an order's an order, McDonnell said.
“The point is, we're trying to follow the directive. ... We were never going to not continue going with the Douglas County crime lab,” he said. “It was a matter of going through the new directive that Mayor Stothert has put in place about getting capital or equipment (expenses) approved.”
Stothert has barred fire officials from talking publicly about the budget, and McDonnell was not allowed to comment for a World-Herald story last week. At that point, it wasn't clear when the evidence would be processed.
After the article ran, McDonnell got permission to respond to one comment from Sheriff Tim Dunning, who said, “If they're playing around with somebody's case, that's not funny.”
McDonnell said the comment disparaged the fire investigation unit, which has an exceptionally high clearance rate.
“We don't play around with people's cases,” he said. “And I think our record reflects that.”
Dunning declined to comment on the exchange but confirmed that the lab is processing Fire Department evidence as usual.