Inside the The Mat laundry at 360 Cumberland Ave., Portland, forensic evidence technician Victor Cote is dusting for fingerprints, footprints and checking all possible traces of evidence that may lead him to the suspects who attempted to break in to the business the night before.

With a black brush, Cote applies a fine black-carbon dust to a door that was busted in, its lock smashed in a failed attempt to access the safe behind it. The carbon dust reveals a footprint where the perpetrator kicked in the door. Cote presses clear tape over the footprint, removing the tape and pressing it onto a piece of forensic paper, revealing the markings of a shoe print.

Cote dusts for fingerprints around the door frame, and removes a kitchen sink knob that was used to break the door in. He shines a flashlight on a toolkit that was tampered with, and uses a wet cotton swab to pick up potential skin cells that may lie on a saw that was used to try to hack into the safe. He takes several shots of the crime scene with his Nikon D70 digital camera, and is ready to return to the lab for processing.

If all goes according to plan, the Portland Police Department lab will be transformed into a new, regional crime lab that will also serve seven surrounding towns, including Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and South Portland. The lab would be located in the department’s gymnasium space at 109 Middle St. Scarborough’s Town Council has approved entering into a cost-share agreement, and Cape Elizabeth’s Town Council will discuss the agreement at its meeting on March 10. South Portland signed the agreement at its Feb. 4 meeting.

The regional lab would help towns to pool their resources and expedite local crime cases. Portland would pay for the total cost of lab’s utilities, repair and upkeep. Portland would also be responsible for paying the initial cost of the design, construction and renovation of the facility. The towns sharing the lab would pay a portion of the $150,000 needed for the lab’s equipment and $1.5 million needed for the building of the facility, according to their population size.

Inside Portland’s current lab, several pieces of equipment help Cote to examine the evidence he has collected at the crime scene. The lab has a $3,000 fingerprint processing station, used to suck out carbon dust and reveal fingerprints on forensic paper.

The lab also has a $6,000 machine, where a kind of super glue vaporizes and adheres to the moisture and oils left by a fingerprint. The machine is used to lift prints from evidence such as a glass bottle, or from the sink nob that Cote retrieved from The Mat’s crime scene.

The Portland lab also has a piece of equipment that uses light sources from an infinite light spectrum to reveal evidence. Such an attunable light source gives forensic technicians much greater precision in identifying evidence like fingerprints, bodily fluids, liquids in arson investigation and hairs from fibers.

At the lab, Cote holds up the light to reveal how various light spectra pick up a fingerprint and highlight its characteristics. Some light works better with certain pieces of evidence, such as blue spectrum light.

The lab also has an examination room and a drying rack room, used to examine and then dry evidence such as blood or bodily fluids.

The new regional lab has plans for four examination rooms and a drying room with cabinets for each town, so that every technician can have space to work on specific cases. The lab is also hoping to obtain an Automated Fingerprint Identification System. The automated identification system would allow technicians to digitally input and access a database of fingerprints, enabling them to log new prints and find suspects who have committed previous offenses and are already in the system.

The regional lab will continue to work in conjunction with the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory in Augusta, but would also help to reduce pressure on that lab’s resources. Currently, the state crime lab has a staff of 29, who deal with more than 1,000 forensic cases from across the state every year. The regional lab would have a minimum of one technician from each town, and Portland would have four technicians.

“I do think a regional lab will benefit the Portland area and us as well. They can process fingerprints and screen biological material, two of the more labored parts of DNA testing that will save our lab time and effort,” said Eliot Kollman, state crime lab director.

The state lab is currently seeking $400,000 in federal and state funding to hire four additional DNA analysts and to purchase supplies that would help with property-related cases, which make up 95 percent of all crimes in Maine.

“Forty percent of our DNA staff are hired on federal funding. Without new funding next year, we will be faced with losing staff, and it would be virtually impossible to stay up on cases,” said Kollman.

Currently, it takes anywhere from three to five months for the state lab to process evidence from property-related crimes. More serious crimes, such as rape or murder, can take anywhere from two to three weeks to process, depending on the case.

“If we had the equipment to process DNA here in Portland, it would be more a matter of hours or days for turnaround time,” said Cote.

Most towns send their evidence directly to the state. While Portland has equipment to process some evidence, having a full lab would allow towns participating in the regional lab to process prints, DNA and other evidence locally before sending it to the state.

Construction of the new lab is scheduled to begin as early as spring of 2009. South Portland, Falmouth, Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department, and Scarborough have signed the cost-share agreement. Cape Elizabeth, Westbrook, Yarmouth and Windham will be reviewing the agreement at their town and city council meetings this month.

Ron Nelson, a forensic evidence technician in Scarborough who has been a detective since 1988 and a crime scene investigator since 1992, is excited about the prospect of a larger forensic lab space and the opportunity to work with other evidence technicians.

“The new lab will have much more space than we have in our small department, so if I wanted to examine a bedsheet or larger piece of evidence I would have room to do so, where I don’t now,” Nelson said.

Scarborough’s lab uses an alternative light source with a filter wheel that enables Nelson to view only five colors in the light spectrum, allowing less range and precision in forensic evidence examination.

“The new lab will also be helpful if a technician wants do something and they aren’t that familiar with the processing, they can go and collaborate and learn,” Nelson said.

According to the regional lab agreement, recent years have seen a sharp increase in the need for forensic analysis of evidence.

“The volume of forensic evidence has increased, in part because the capability for forensic processing has advanced both in technology and in skill,” said Portland Police Chief Tim Burton. “So as technology has advanced, it’s become more user-friendly and has increased capabilities that before weren’t possible.”

“This facility would alleviate the sheer volume that the state is confronted with, and also ensure that those items that are submitted to the state for more advanced analysis, are prepared in a manner that is consistent with accepted standards and practices,” Burton said.

Regardless of the crime committed, Burton said, the rule of thumb in investigation is that there is aways a transfer of forensic material.

“The perpetrator always takes something with them and/or leaves something behind,” Burton said. “The better we are at recovering that info and comparing it to known samples, the better we’ll be able to solve crimes.”

“The lab would enable towns to share expertise and coordinate enforcement across jurisdictional lines,” Burton said. “It would also provide more advanced training for officers from participating departments, and enhance capacity for this type of work.”

“It’s a great space, and it hasn’t been in use for a while,” said Scarborough Town Manager Ron Owens at a Feb. 6 Town Council meeting.

“This is a great effort to combine resources among municipalities. It wouldn’t be cost-efficient for these towns to take on this project individually,” said Neal Allen, director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, an organization that supports regionalization in the Greater Portland area.

Portland City Councilor Jim Cohen, chairman of the Metro Regional Coalition, which helps to establish partnerships among towns to save money and improve the quality of municipal services, has been a long-time supporter of regionalization.

“We focused on the crime lab as really the first tangible and achievable project of the Metro Coalition. Our hope that the crime lab will serve as a blueprint for future regional projects,” Cohen said.

“This is a great example of communities trying to work together to make something better,” said Scarborough Councilor Ron Ahlquist. “It’s great for the town, and it’s a well-put-together plan.”

“There are a lot of things that will be able to be resolved now at the local level and that will save us both time and money,” said Scarborough Police Chief Robert Moulton.

At a Feb. 6 town council meeting, Councilor Michael Wood expressed some concern about the sharing of expenditures and costs with such a collaborative effort.

Moulton said he wasn’t concerned about sharing costs in such a regional project because he has worked with all of the chiefs involved. He said he’s comfortable with their management styles and didn’t foresee any problems.

The lab would have its own administrative board, with representation from each town participating, who would make decisions and vote on changes based on the three-quarters majority needed.

“As stated in the agreement, a three-quarters majority would be needed to pass any capital improvement for the project,” said Scarborough Town Council Chairman Jeff Messer. “From my experience working with (the waste management firm) ecomaine, which shares fiscal responsibility across municipalities, a 75 percent majority is difficult to achieve. So I feel confident that there’s a rough equity that’s achieved in this agreement.”

Portland Police Department forensic evidence technician Victor Cote brushes carbon dust on the door of The Mat Laundromat in Portland. The Mat was the site of an attempted break-in recently.

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