HomeCity NewsVerdugo Regional Crime Lab Puts the Community First

Verdugo Regional Crime Lab Puts the Community First

An important aspect of the Verdugo Regional Crime Lab is the Biology Unit, which includes DNA testing. Shown above is a criminalist with the lab, Michelle Metchikian.

Located within the Glendale Police Department, the Verdugo Regional Crime Lab is uniquely dedicated and equipped to serve the community’s needs.
“The nice part of the lab being located within the Glendale Police Department is that we can easily pivot to the priorities of what’s important to Glendale residents and what’s important to the police department,” VRCL Director Catherine Nguyen told the News-Press.
With the recent increase in residential burglaries within the city, for example, Nguyen said the lab is focusing its efforts on analyzing forensic evidence left behind at any crime scenes related to these incidents.
“We appreciate that we can be responsive to the immediate needs of the people within this community,” said Nguyen, adding that it is unusual for a city the size of Glendale to have its own accredited crime lab.
The VRCL comprises three units: the Biology Unit, which analyzes DNA and tests for bodily fluids; the Computer Forensics Unit, which examines digital media and evidence; and the Forensics Services Unit, which covers crime scene investigations, fingerprints and firearm analysis.
Nguyen, who has been with the lab since before its official accreditation in 2013, spoke to the growth of the Computer Forensics Unit over her tenure. When the lab was starting out, there was a heavy reliance on the Forensics Services Unit, but as technology has changed, the Computer Forensics Unit has seen rapid growth. The Biology Unit also has remained consistently busy with DNA testing.
With the breadth of information cellphones can provide through social media usage, location services and beyond, Nguyen stressed the importance of keeping up with technology in the lab.
“It’s really a race between how quickly forensic software can develop and how quickly technology is moving,” she said. “Forensics is just trying to keep up so there’s a heavy fiscal investment for any lab in trying to have enough resources to address all the ways in which media has been developed, and also how to get information from that.”
Due to the increases in computer and cellphone storage capacities over the years, the lab must scale its servers to accommodate the massive amount of data collected from electronics, Nguyen said.
The lab’s central position in the city also helps maintain evidence integrity due to collaboration among units, Nguyen said. Because crime scene response “becomes the foundation of any sort of investigation,” it helps that crime scene investigators can work closely with staff in the Biology Unit to discuss any possible sample contamination and divulge details of sample collection.
“You can imagine that before there was a DNA lab [in Glendale] and samples were sent off to other facilities, you may or may not know the crime scene person or if they’ve contaminated evidence, but here we can provide immediate response to other staff members,” Nguyen said.
Aside from that opportunity for open communication among different units, Nguyen emphasized that some staff members are also cross-trained in multiple fields across units, meaning that the person who collected evidence at a crime scene may be the same person who also analyzes that evidence back at the lab.
In addition to serving Glendale, the lab also receives submissions from the greater Southern California area on a fee-for-service basis. This includes the cities of Pasadena, Burbank, Arcadia, Beverly Hills, Inglewood and more.
The crime lab also has an internship program for college students studying subjects like biology, chemistry and criminology to give them a feel for what it’s like to work in a real lab. Last year, the lab partnered for the first time with the Glendale Educational Foundation to create an additional internship pathway for high school students.
“What is important for people who are interested in the field of forensic science is to be able to get their foot in the door, get some exposure to how a forensic lab works,” Nguyen said. “It’s the idea of transitioning from an academic background, where you know the theory behind things, to then seeing how a lab can run and translating that into an actual job.”
Nguyen also emphasized the role the city government and community play in making it possible for the lab to be fully operational, noting that City Council’s continuous support through approving congressional grants provides funding for the lab.
“Because of the community support from the outset, there’s a real tie to the investment of the lab and the type of work that’s done to benefit the citizens of Glendale and we take that commitment to the community really seriously.”

First published in the December 9 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.

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