Foster Elementary School / Detroit Police Crime Lab

In the 1950’s, the neighborhood of Brush Park was the center of a dramatic demographic shift sweeping across the city. Streets of ornate Victorian-style houses dating back the 1880’s had long since been abandoned by the wealthy and converted into run-down tenements for the city’s poorest – mostly black - residents. To combat poverty and clear out the slums, “urban renewal” programs bulldozed entire neighborhoods and replaced them with new housing, including the Brewster-Douglass housing project. Built in phases between 1935 and 1955, it crammed thousands of residents into townhomes and soaring towers of apartments.

With only a few older, run-down school buildings serving the area, the board of education started planning for a new public school adjacent to the Brewster-Douglass homes in early 1955. The 1,100-seat elementary school was finished in January of 1957 and was named for Stephen Collins Foster, an American song writer whose works included "My Old Kentucky Home," "Camptown Races," and other popular minstrel songs of the 1800’s.

Within a few short decades, the growth trend in the city had reversed, and Brush Park was in a sharp decline. Many of the grand Victorian mansions had become vacant, and were steadily falling victim to arson. The Brewster-Douglass projects were struggling too. Erosion of housing standards, lack of investment and the aftermath of the 1967 riots left a community deeply impoverished.

In 1982, Detroit Public Schools announced that it would be closing 19 schools. Nearly 100,000 students had left the district since 1969, as their parents headed to the suburbs and better opportunities. Though barely 30 years old, Foster Elementary was slated for closure. The building was vacated and boarded up.

The school got a second life when the Detroit Police Department’s crime laboratory was looking for a new location in the 1980’s. One of the oldest crime labs in the country, the lab operated independently of the state system due to the large caseload generated by the city. In 1988 or 1989 Foster was renovated and reopened as the DPD crime lab. Within a few years the building and its classrooms were housing a forensic biology lab, firearms testing, polygraph administration, the police bomb squad, a tactical response team, and building maintenance for the city’s police stations and jails.

Throughout the 1990’s, the lab was cited as one of the best in the country, using cutting edge forensic technology. The lab was one of the first to use DNA testing in rape cases, starting in 1994. By 2000 there were over 75 employees handling 10,000 cases a year. Blood samples, drug tests, and guns flowed from the streets through the lab and into courtrooms, often playing a critical role in identifying criminals and bringing them to justice.

But as technology costs increased and city funding shrank, the lab struggled to keep up with an increasing workload. The former school building was nearly 50 years old in 2004 when voters approved a bond that included $20 million dollars in funding for a new crime lab. In April of 2008, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced that the city would be spending $17.5 million to built a new crime lab. “The men and woman of the Detroit Police Department deserve modern facilities,” he told the press standing in the hallway of the old elementary school.

Barely a few weeks later, however, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into the firearms division of the crime lab after irregularities were found in how bullet shell casings had been tested by the firearms division in an investigation of a double homicide. An audit by the Michigan State Police found a 10% error rate in ballistics cases processed by the lab, as well as poor record keeping, lax evidence control, and lack of training. Facing the possibility that hundreds of cases might have to be reopened due to mishandling, the Detroit Police Department immediately closed the entire lab on September 25th, 2008 and turned over its responsibilities to the State Police. At the time, the Detroit Free Press reported Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy as saying “’If we have even one person in prison on evidence that was improperly done, that's a huge problem,’ Worthy said. ‘As prosecutors, we completely rely on the findings of police crime lab experts every day in court and we present this information to juries. And when there are failures of this magnitude, there is a ... betrayal of trust.’"

The closure of the lab had a ripple effect throughout the state, as the State Police forensic labs faced budget cuts while taking on Detroit’s caseload. Though the state hired on additional workers, the backlog of cases requiring biological testing - including DNA – swamped the understaffed agency, which had to ship thousands to labs out of state. Cases piled up, leaving officials wondering how they were going to keep up at a time when the economy was cratering and budgets were being slashed. Wait times of months, even years for evidence to be tested would be the new norm.

While the lab was no longer testing evidence, it was used as a central collection point for materials to be tagged and sent to the State Police until July of 2009, when the chief of police ordered the building emptied out and transferred to headquarters so that the officers who guarded the building 24/7 could be released for other duties. The move was only partially completed when a change in administration stopped the process. By early 2011, the officers guarding the building had been reassigned. It was no longer clear who was responsible for the building, or if anyone was still working on it.

It was only a matter of time before scrappers found their way into the unguarded building, as well as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, acting on a tip from a citizen. What he found made headlines around the country the next day: Police equipment had been left behind, including riot gear, bulletproof vests, and breathalyzers. Boxes of criminal records and polygraph tests. Thousands of rounds of live ammunition, some of which were stored in plastic tubs. Blueprints to every police and jail facility in the city. Lab equipment including microscopes, computers, and gas centrifuges. Bottles of highly toxic chemicals.

Within a few hours, the building had been boarded up, and a security guard posted outside – but the damage had been done. The pictures of riot gear and trashed laboratory equipment stoked a fierce nationwide debate about the sorry state of forensic labs in major cities. The Detroit Fire Department’s hazardous materials team decontaminated the building, removing chemicals and mold, while the county prosecutor and state police opened investigations into what had been left behind and why. In a weird twist of circumstances, it turned out that the police department official who had been tasked with cleaning out the crime lab had been overseeing the project until he was promoted to chief of police, after which it fell by the wayside.

The contents of the building were completely moved out, leaving an empty shell to be picked over by scrappers once the guards were reassigned a few months later. Detroit did eventually get a new crime lab. In 2013, the state police opened a forensic lab inside the new Detroit Public Safety Headquarters. Just how much evidence had been left behind, and the possible impact on criminal cases is difficult to establish. But the ripple effects of the closure of the crime lab continued to be felt years later.

In the summer of 2009, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office discovered over 11,000 untested “rape kits” languishing in a police warehouse on Detroit’s east side. Some of the kits, which contain biological evidence and samples collected after sex crimes, had sat undisturbed on metal shelves inside the former auto parts plant for years and dated back to crimes that had taken place in the 1980’s. The result was that some sexual predators were allowed to roam the streets and strike again, even while evidence potentially linking the crimes sat untouched. To date it has taken nearly 10 years and over $7.5 million dollars to test 10,000 kits, which has led to the identification of 833 serial rapists, and 130 criminal convictions.

In the spring of 2015, the old Foster School was demolished. After decades of decline, Brush Park is being redeveloped into a modern, hip neighborhood. On the site of the former school “The Flats at 440 Brush,” a 69-unit residential building is rising.