Pasco, USF seek statewide forensics research lab

The center would be a crime lab and research and training facility.
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LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County is seeking to become home to a proposed statewide forensic anthropology research and training center.

The center, if legislators and Gov. Rick Scott agree to the $4.3 million price tag, would be built on 4 acres of county-owned land in Land O'Lakes near the Pasco County Detention Center. It would be the seventh such facility in the country.

The project is a proposed partnership among Pasco County, the Pasco Sheriff's Office, the University of South Florida and Pasco-Hernando State College. It calls for indoor and outdoor facilities, including research and service labs, classrooms, a morgue and evidence storage to serve the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology & Applied Sciences research center at USF, which started in 2014 and already serves law enforcement and medical examiners around Florida.

If approved, the center would be a working crime lab and would provide specialized hands-on training for professionals dealing with investigations into homicides, human trafficking and other violent crimes. USF's website characterizes the project as allowing law officers to work alongside researchers to better understand crime scenes and to apply the latest investigative techniques "to become highly skilled at collecting, processing and interpreting evidence in their cases.''

Though plans are preliminary, said Dr. Stan Giannet, vice president of academic affairs at PHSC, the center potentially could be part of offering job-training certificates and associate degrees in crime scene technology through PHSC.

The center also could attract researchers from around the country, and Pasco County envisions it as the anchor for developing an industrial cluster tied to forensics.

"From a public safety standpoint, this is a home run,'' Sheriff Chris Nocco said.

"It's a big deal,'' said Pasco Commissioner Mike Wells Jr., who urged fellow commissioners to sign a letter to legislators supporting the project.

Whether state dollars are available is another story. The Florida House Appropriations Committee forecast released Jan. 10 called for flat budget revenue for the fiscal year starting July 1 and a combined $3.2 billion shortfall for the 2018 and 2019 budget years.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Rep. Danny Burgess, R-San Antonio, will seek the appropriation. Burgess said he was optimistic the state would fund the effort.

"The Tampa Bay region needs a centralized forensics location that will give law enforcement agencies the tools to prevent and solve crimes,'' Burgess said via email. "I think that the Legislature realizes what an important task this is, and that's why I am hopeful we can get this funding in the budget."

The center would be in the House district of Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and Nocco has had success in procuring state appropriations. In 2015, when Gov. Rick Scott vetoed more than $8.4 million in Pasco-specific appropriations — including money for an elderly nutrition kitchen and transitional housing for the homeless — he left untouched $1 million for a new gun range sought by the Sheriff's Office.

Nocco commended Simpson for seeking the appropriation, even though the forensics center would not be in his district. The sheriff also said he was confident of securing the funding.

"I'm very optimistic,'' said Nocco. ''There is nothing about this project that is a negative.''

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