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With North Dakota's crime lab facing criticism, attorney general requests budget boost

The state crime lab in Bismarck has been mostly unable to test guns and latent fingerprints due to staffing limitations, said North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley.

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North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley speaks to reporters in his office on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley said Wednesday, Nov. 16, he plans to ask lawmakers to grant his office a major budget increase amid struggles to retain employees and to run a fully functioning state crime lab.

The Republican officeholder told reporters he is seeking a "significant" enhancement to the office's current $96.4 million two-year budget, including funding to hire more criminal investigators and forensic lab technicians. Wrigley said parts of his agency are in dire need of salary and staffing upgrades, noting that he will "go to war" to make sure the budget requests are given full consideration.

Wrigley declined to disclose the total amount of his proposed budget, which he has submitted to Gov. Doug Burgum. The Republican governor will release his official budget recommendations next month. A spokesman for Burgum declined to comment on Wrigley's budget proposal.

Budget writers in the North Dakota Legislature, who have not yet been named, will ultimately decide the size of Wrigley's budget when they meet next year.

Crime lab

Bolstering the state crime lab is a core priority for Wrigley, who said police around the state have complained to him about the south Bismarck facility's limitations.

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Since a cutback under former Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem several years ago, the lab has been unable to test guns seized by law enforcement in criminal cases, Wrigley said. Local police have resorted to sending firearms to expensive private labs to find out important forensic information, causing roadblocks for prosecutors, he said. The state lab also lacks capacity to test fingerprints left at crime scenes.

Wrigley said he wants to hire more firearm and fingerprint examiners, while adding equipment and physically expanding the state lab to accommodate more activity.

The Forum reported last month that more than 250 rape kits were awaiting testing at the state lab, though Wrigley said that number has since fallen. The attorney general noted that a budget increase for the lab would help resolve the rape kit backlog.

Wrigley's plans also involve bringing the lab under the management of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation — a proposal that has drawn criticism from a lab employee who said putting cops in charge would harm the institution's independence, according to reporting by Forum columnist Rob Port. Wrigley argued the move would help resolve backlogs, noting that most public labs are tied to criminal investigation agencies.

Bureau of Criminal Investigation

The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation needs at least three more agents to help enforce drug laws on Native American reservations, Wrigley said.

The Spirit Lake Tribe agreed earlier this year to allow BCI agents and local police to enforce federal laws, including illegal drug trafficking, on its reservation in northeast North Dakota. One BCI officer is already working with police on the reservation.

BCI Director Lonnie Grabowska said his agency is in talks to establish similar agreements with three other tribes: the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Agents located near the reservations could help establish drug task forces to clamp down on illegal trafficking, Grabowska said.

Retaining workers

Wrigley said retaining employees in the attorney general's office, including lawyers, has been difficult due to salary constraints. Part of his budget proposal asks for merit-based salary increases to incentivize employees to stick around. The office has 253 full-time employees.

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The attorney general also noted he has requested funding to add positions within the agency's gambling division and grow support for its Medicaid fraud unit.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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