Nearly six years after the District announced the construction of a forensic lab that would help the city become less dependent on federal law enforcement, D.C. on Monday opened a $210 million complex that officials vow will transform crime-fighting in the notoriously crime-ridden municipality.

"It represents the confluence of science, technology and good police work," said Paul Quander, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, at the new Consolidated Forensic Laboratory. "This building and these experts will allow us to stay in front of the curve."

(See a photo gallery of the new crime lab)

The 351,000-square-foot, six-story facility, which received $55 million in federal funding, will handle autopsies, public health and bioterrorism investigations, and evidence from firearms, DNA and fingerprints.

"The potential that this building gives to the District of Columbia to increase, improve and expand its ability do forensic analysis to solve crimes is just enormous," said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a longtime advocate for a new lab. "I don't think we have a full sense of it."

Forensic functions
Along with autopsies and DNA testing, the new D.C. laboratory's duties include handling:
-- Computer forensics
-- Food testing
-- Genetic screenings for newborns
-- Toxicology

City officials said 270 people will work in the E Street Southwest building, which has been under construction since November 2009. Employees are already moving in, and Max Houck, the director of the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences, said he expected the transition to conclude by the end of the year.

The path toward a new crime lab was long and tortured, and preliminary discussions about a new District-focused complex began in the early 2000s. At the time, the Metropolitan Police Department was sending thousands of trace evidence specimens -- including DNA and hair samples -- each year to the FBI's laboratory in Virginia.

But U.S. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein told Congress in September 2006 that the city needed its own lab because the FBI was too overwhelmed with cases from throughout the United States to handle the District's with sufficient speed.

"The workload well exceeds the FBI's finite resources," Wainstein said. "The processing of our cases, by necessity, has to be prioritized against the competing needs of these other cases from around the country."

Even though Mayor Anthony Williams said in 2006 that the city's crime lab would be ready by 2010, the project stalled for much of Adrian Fenty's administration amid squabbling about its location and funding.

And although Mayor Vincent Gray's administration finished the lab, the leader of the police union slammed Gray for the city's plans to staff the facility with mostly civilians instead of police officers.

"Unfortunately, this administration appears to be so incompetent that they won't be able to get it up and running in an effective manner," said Kristopher Baumann. "If they had done it properly, the impact could have been amazing."

Pedro Ribeiro, Gray's spokesman, defended the District's strategy.

"The plan is about scientists doing the science," said Ribeiro, who added the approach would free up more officers for policing.