Though sprinkled with lighthearted jests, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s homecoming Wednesday to Franklin County largely focused on his serious plans to enhance the state’s top law enforcement organization.
Speaking to a crowded room at the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issues event, Schmidt detailed the vital aid the Kansas Bureau of Investigation provides to local law enforcement.
“If you talk with our county attorney, sheriff or local folks in the police department, they will tell you that they rely very heavily on what I call the back shop support services provided to them by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation,” Schmidt, who entered into office as attorney general in 2011, said. “The KBI is the state’s premiere, state-level criminal investigation service and the vast majority of what the KBI does — notwithstanding when you see them in the headlines — is behind the scenes support work for the local sheriff, county attorney, police chief or whoever it may be, making sure that they have the capacity and the support they need to do the local criminal justice work properly and timely. ... That’s why a third of what the KBI’s capacity is focused on is information technology and information service management. They run the state criminal justice database. It may not be glamorous work, but it is really critical work.”
That critical technology work also includes the KBI’s forensic laboratory services, Schmidt said. As technology has quickly and broadly expanded into the daily lives of Kansans, so too have the demands on forensic services for criminal prosecution, he said.
“You can’t just hold up the cell phone and say ‘convict the guy,’” Schmidt, who served part of southwestern Franklin County for 10 years as a state senator, said. “You’ve got to have somebody of capacity who can take that data, turn it into evidence and present it to a jury or fact-finding judge in order to make the case.”
Though Schmidt did not discuss it Tuesday, many Franklin County residents’ most recent familiarity with the state law enforcement agency came in recent months after the KBI launched a Sept. 27 probe into the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. That KBI investigation eventually led to criminal charges against and the arrest of then-Franklin County Sheriff Jeff Curry. While full details of the ongoing KBI probe have not been released, Curry was charged with misconduct and lying to investigators. The sheriff ultimately resigned, effective April 1, taking a diversion deal and averting further criminal court proceedings.
Not all KBI cases have come to such a quick end.
The rapidly growing need to analyze data from such technology as smartphones, computers, GPS devices and more, Schmidt noted Tuesday, previously has bogged down the KBI’s ability to quickly analyze information for law enforcement. And after conducting an evaluation of the KBI early into his term, Schmidt said, he discovered the dramatic scale of delays facing Kansas’ law enforcement. “When I got here 28 months ago, and I had the privilege to start serving in the position, we did a top-to-bottom review of our capacity,” he said to the crowd at Ransom Memorial Hospital, 1301 S. Main St., Ottawa. “One of the things we learned 28 months ago was that the KBI was 14 months behind on analyzing digital forensic samples submitted to it.”
To illustrate that figure differently, Schmidt explained that if Ottawa police sent the KBI digital evidence for analysis, it would take on average about 14 months. Not only was digital analysis consuming more than a year’s time, Schmidt said, such data would only be inspected by the KBI if it related to major person felonies, such as rape, homicide or armed robbery. If the data was associated with a burglary or misdemeanor, the evidence would almost certainly not be analyzed, he said. The delay and inability to inspect such information was mostly the result of an understaffed forensic lab, he added, which featured only three specialists.
As a result of such deficiencies, Schmidt highlighted the results of a 2012 survey of local Kansas law enforcement agencies. Forty-one percent of those agencies, Schmidt said, indicated that they had either dismissed criminal charges entirely or plead down charges significantly because the KBI couldn’t analyze evidence quickly enough.
“We had a wholly inadequate capacity to deal with sample submissions from law enforcement agencies,” Schmidt said. “Last year, we started telling [the Legislature] about these facts and they said ‘My gosh, nobody told us. We didn’t know. We’ve got to fix that.’ And last year, they appropriated a significant amount of money and as a result of that we have stood up at the KBI headquarters in Topeka the first of its kind in the country a transitional, satellite and digital, regional forensic laboratory. ... What that means in plain English is that we’ve gone from [three forensic lab specialists] to 10 digital forensic analysts doing that work at the bureau headquarters in Topeka.”
The facility is a branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Kansas City, Schmidt said, adding it was developed via a partnership with the FBI, which paid all the up-front costs, including training costs. To further bolster the facility’s services, Schmidt said, legislators are considering action that would improve recruitment and retainment of lab specialists by creating a forensic science educational program. The program would form a new forensic laboratory on the Washburn University campus in Topeka that would make Kansas more competitive in luring skilled professionals. Schmidt said the proposal — which has received a nod from Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, been approved by the Senate, but has yet to be approved by the House — would also institute at forensic scientist training program at Washburn.
“It isn’t a sexy issue,” Schmidt said. “It’s back shop capacity. When done right, it’s not headline grabbing. At the end of the day, the way you measure whether we’re doing our job or not is whether we’re providing the nuts and bolts support to local authorities to do theirs.”