The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences achieved two major milestones this month: opening a massive $75 million facility which was a decade in the making, and receiving continued accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners.
The Institute’s brass cut the ribbon on the facility Thursday, a week after full operations began in the nine-story tower on the property of the Texas Medical Center in Houston.
The new tower boasts 210,000 square feet, and will boost the operations of the HCIFS, which handles the medical examiner duties for the city of Houston and its surrounding communities. The forensic disciplines include pathology, anthropology, neuropathology, entomology, morgue services, toxicology, drug chemistry and trace evidence endeavors including fire debris, gunshot residue and firearms, paint analysis, and others.
“Today, as we dedicate our new home, the institute has proven the value of the integration of the crime laboratory service with the medical examiner service,” said Roger Kahn, the director of the new crime lab. “With all forensic disciplines in one location, we promote a collaborative environment, both internally and within the Texas Medical Center that fosters innovation, and encourages the development of new techniques and the improvement of existing ones.”
The crime lab began in 1986, when the county medical examiner’s office established a separate space to analyze controlled substances, including leafy substances, powders and pills. The operations have since grown hugely. The HCIFS fields 11,000 annual death reports, and performs approximately 5,000 post-mortem examinations. The Institute serves some 80 law enforcement agencies. The HCIFS crime lab receives about 26,000 cases per year, authorities said.
Local voters approved a bond to build the nine-story building at the polls in November 2007. The construction began in July 2014, and was substantially completed in November 2016.
The previous building was a fraction of the size—about 70,000 square feet—and was located essentially across the street, also at the Texas Medical Center.
The HCIFS also touted its reaccreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners. It marks a decade straight of certification by NAME, according to officials.
“The best objective measure of scientific validity in death investigation is the NAME accreditation, which the Institute has held for the last 10 years and strives to maintain,” said Luis Sanchez, the chief medical examiner and HCIFS executive director.
The Harris County Institute has a counterpart that presents some redundancy in investigating crime in and around Texas’s largest city (and the country’s third largest). The Houston Forensic Science Center has also undergone some serious reinvestment and reevaluation. Both agencies have trace evidence capabilities including DNA, firearms and toxicology. But while the HCIFS has the medical examiner’s office, the HFSC controls the Houston crime scene unit, and also houses additional disciplines like digital forensics, forensic audio and video, and a latent fingerprint unit.