BILLINGS – The opening of the new, cutting-edge Eastern Montana Crime Lab in Billings is saving space and time for law enforcement in 32 of Montana’s counties.
On Thursday, for the first time, the public and media were allowed to tour the new facility and see what it can do.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox was on hand with leaders from Yellowstone County to usher in the new lab. Fox said the facility will help Montana continue to have a cutting-edge forensic sciences division.
“This state has the best forensic sciences divisions, and we are getting better with time,” said Fox.
Scott Larson oversees the Montana State Crime Lab and said the idea to form a second lab on the eastern side of the state was introduced into the Montana legislative session in 2015. In 2017, funding was allocated for a lab in Billings. He said the state gave $800,000, and another $150,000 came from Yellowstone County.
The newly renovated lab in Billings started operations in mid-January in the building once occupied by the old Wild West Bar.
“Everything about this building suits the needs that we have,” said Deputy Medical Examiner Andrea Orvik.
The lab is divided into two parts, a morgue and a chemistry analysis lab. Billings will get a third of all Montana crime lab submissions, which will be roughly 1,500 cases in 2019. Officials also anticipate performing over 300 autopsies in 2019.
The morgue was previously operated at St. Vincent Healthcare. Now the facility will give more room to work, according to Orvik.
“The space at the old facility was just inadequate,” she said. “With two pathologists now in Billings, we have an adequate workforce for the amount of cases that we have.”
Mark Winslow, forensic scientist for the Eastern Montana Crime Lab, said having a crime lab in Billings is helpful for drug-related and violent crimes.
“It’s the convenience factor. Because Billings being one of the largest cities, we need this facility,” said Winslow.
The turn-around time now for police on drug investigations goes down and travel time back and forth to Missoula saves time, said Winslow.
Although Billings helps alleviate the burden on the workload at the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula, Missoula’s facility handles toxicology, DNA, firearms, and prints, according to Larson. Billings will handle chemistry and medical examining.
However, in the future, Larson said the facility in Billings is designed to even expand if needed.
Going forward, Fox said an advisory committee will continue to work with the Eastern Montana Crime Lab to ensure it’s heading in the right direction.