North Dakota attorney general seeks to boost crime lab, staff


North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley will push state lawmakers to physically expand and better staff the State Crime Lab, boost pay to attract and retain attorneys, and add state crime bureau agents to assist understaffed law enforcement agencies serving tribal nations.

Wrigley on Wednesday told reporters that law enforcement officials across the state see proposed updates at the crime lab as “essential.”

The lab currently can’t provide firearm or latent fingerprint analysis, forcing police and sheriffs’ departments to find a lab to do the work. The process adds a time delay, calls evidence chain of custody into question, and puts added expense on the investigating departments, according to Wrigley.

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“We’ve got all the equipment. We don’t have the personnel,” he said.

Salary increases for the State Crime Lab approved by the Legislature in its special session last year didn’t improve the situation, according to Wrigley. Eight of 23 lab employees left from 2020-21, including five in 2021, because they were offered far higher salaries elsewhere.

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A small-town police department recently had to pay $8,000 for firearms testing at a lab in Missouri, Wrigley said. And unless defense attorneys agree that evidence has been handled correctly, the department might have to pay for lab representatives to be flown in to testify.

“The expenses skyrocket,” Wrigley said.

The Attorney General’s Office’s current two-year budget is $96.4 million. He declined to say how big of an increase he’ll seek for the next two years. He said he’d announce more details after Gov. Doug Burgum presents his budget blueprint next month.

Public safety is a priority of new House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson. Part of his agenda is increased funding for the State Crime Lab and state efforts to combat narcotics. Lefor cited attorney general statistics of overall crimes against persons rising more than 10% from 2020-21, or 11.5% when robbery is added in.

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“We need to really focus on that, work with the attorney general, work with law enforcement agencies to do whatever we can to reduce crime in North Dakota,” Lefor said.

The budget proposal also will address staff attorney salaries. Current salaries aren’t competitive with other state government agencies, Wrigley said, adding that his office has lost attorneys to them. Staff attorneys provide legal services to agencies, boards and commissions that represent the interest of the state. When they aren’t paid on a level with other state attorneys “it doesn’t strike me as the right balance,” he said.

Wrigley also is pushing to add three or more Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents, near the Fort Berthold, Standing Rock and Turtle Mountain Indian reservations. BCI already has worked with the Spirit Lake tribe to pilot an initial agreement. BCI’s Devils Lake office services Spirit Lake. 

“We’re going to take it one reservation at a time to make sure we’re not spreading ourselves overly thin to start with,” BCI Director Lonnie Grabowska said. 

The move comes after talks with tribal leaders about the growing drug problem in Indian Country and the lack of federal agents on reservations.

Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement is staffed at about 30%, Wrigley said, and state officials are working on cooperative agreements that among other enforcement issues would allow BCI agents to arrest Indian or non-Indian suspects and enforce laws on the reservation.

None of the budget requests are being made simply to make division directors happy, Wrigley said.

“We are going to war to make sure that our budget considerations are given full consideration,” he said. 

Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or [email protected]

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