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Rethinking the Ownership of Crime Labs: No Matter Who Is in Charge, Jurisdictional Commitment Is Key

By John M. Collins, Advisor, Forensic Science Policy and Management, RTI International, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina



t is doubtful that any police chief would agree to run a hospital or an engineering firm. Hospitals and engineering firms are not police business, and they require skill sets and value systems unique to those professions. But then again, most police chiefs are not trained or experienced in forensic science yet are entrusted to manage hundreds of crime laboratories across the United States. So what is the difference?

Forensic science, and the sensitivity of the work taking place in U.S. crime laboratories, is an entirely different profession that has almost nothing in common with policing. For those who disagree with this assessment, they might believe that forensic science is, in fact, police business or that it really is not as unique or nuanced as it is made out to be. Both arguments would be entirely false. Rest assured that this article is not an argument to suddenly extract crime laboratories out of police agencies. Instead, it is a call to police administrators to rethink what it means to manage today’s crime laboratories. Despite the vast differences between policing and forensic science, police chiefs should know just how well positioned they are to give crime laboratories exactly what they need—jurisdictional collaboration and commitment.

There is a very good reason that the vast majority of public crime laboratories in the United States operate under the command of police agencies, which dates back to the early half of the 20th century. Law enforcement recognized the need for science to solve crimes; no one else was willing to invest the resources needed to make forensic science more accessible. But in the last 90 years, very little about this arrangement has changed, with the exception of two things—the enormity of the responsibility and the explosion of the demand.

Father of American Policing—August Vollmer

August Vollmer pioneered many of the innovations that continue to define police work. In 1905, he was appointed town marshal of Berkeley, California. In 1907, Vollmer enlisted the aid of a biologist from the University of California at Berkeley to analyze blood, fibers, and soil in the Kelinschmidt murder case. In 1909 Vollmer was appointed the first chief of police in Berkeley. While he was chief of police in Berkeley, California, Vollmer promoted the use of new forensics technology—including fingerprinting, polygraph machines, and crime laboratories. He served as the IACP president from 1921 to 1922. He also contributed to the development of radio communications and improvements in crime analysis and is credited with creating a “Code of Ethics” that forbade gratuities and favors.

The metamorphosis of crime laboratories from simple evidence processing units to full-scale scientific laboratories has been remarkable. Forensic techniques that were once considered advancements in police technology have now evolved into a bona fide profession beholden to the standards and codes of conduct of a greater scientific community. Just this year, for instance, a major article on the potential for bias and errors in forensic science was published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.1 This article will be referenced in courtrooms across the United States.

In recent years, the evolution of forensic science has begged some difficult questions about whether or not it is being accompanied by an equally impressive metamorphosis in how police commanders manage and support their scientific personnel, or if forensic science management is really emerging as a discipline or area of expertise taken seriously within the law enforcement community. Making matters worse, some horrific, catastrophic failures in crime laboratories have recently harmed public perceptions about the reliability of forensic science across the board. The criminal justice systems in Boston, Detroit, Houston, and St. Paul, to name a few, have suffered immeasurably from the discovery of widespread quality assurance problems or outright misconduct that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.2 Although the problems in those jurisdictions were isolated, the effects reverberated nationally.

Forensic science is a credibility business; therefore, every laboratory suffers from the malpractice of a few.

To categorically blame crime laboratory failures on police leadership, however, is unfair and distracts attention from the real problem that must be fixed. After a century of knowledge gained about forensic science and its role in the criminal justice system— and having witnessed what happens when things go very bad, an entirely new priority must be pursued by police administrators.

There has never been a better time for police chiefs to help forensic science become what it needs to be—an interagency jurisdictional priority where individual agencies, including crime laboratories, work together to meet their collective responsibilities. In the absence of this collaboration, the backs of crime laboratories will continue to be broken under the weight of increasing demand, growing work volumes, and pressure to complete testing within short periods of time. Nothing would do more to solidify the police chief’s role in protecting the forensic science enterprise than brokering and negotiating the necessary solutions. Nothing would do more to improve forensic science in the United States.

Ultimately, the authors are talking about police chiefs as custodians of forensic science holding its owners accountable for conducting business the right way. Forensic science does not belong to the police, nor does it belong to prosecutors, judges, or defense attorneys. In fact, forensic science does not even belong to the crime laboratory. Forensic science belongs collectively to the jurisdiction being served; therefore, each jurisdiction has responsibilities to meet.

In Massachusetts, a scientist in one laboratory (a crime laboratory, incidentally, run by the Department of Public Health—not law enforcement) caused widespread chaos as a result of her misconduct.3 On April 1, 2013, another person who worked at the same laboratory was charged with four counts of tampering with evidence.4 No one agency can clean up the mess, which suggests that no one agency should have been left to prevent it in the first place; it should have been a jurisdictional priority.

Few services in the criminal justice system are more sensitive to discord among stakeholders than forensic science. And the effects of this discord can be seen, for example, in the national epidemic of crime laboratory backlogs. Crime laboratories can no longer afford to conduct tests that produce redundant, confusing, or irrelevant results. They can no longer waste time and taxpayer dollars trying to satisfy every request that comes through the door when many of those requests do not justify the costs. There needs to be a balance, and police chiefs should focus on producing this balance in their jurisdictions.

When this balance does not exist, crime laboratory administrators are forced to act as referees to compensate for the lack communication, a role that many would prefer to avoid, so they simply allow backlogs to skyrocket until someone with sufficient authority does something about it.

Although controversial, the 2009 National Research Council report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward made at least one bold statement that resonated with crime laboratory administrators. “The adversarial process relating to the admission and exclusion of scientific evidence,” the authors noted, “is not suited to the task of finding ‘scientific truth.’”5 Unfortunately, this adversarialism does not occur only in the courtroom, it also plagues our criminal justice system, eroding the professional relationships between public officials and their agencies, which compete against one another for political leverage and increasingly scarce funding.

This political nightmare is the part of forensic science that is rarely talked about. Forensic science has few champions and many critics. Worse, its basic needs are sometimes viewed as a threat by some parent agencies that would rather spend the money on something else.

Police chiefs who are interested in supporting forensic science can begin to do so in many ways. The following two recommendations are provided as good starting points:

  • Consider forming a forensic science advisory team made up of representatives of the jurisdiction’s criminal justice system who meet periodically to discuss policies, work volume, backlogs, or any other issues deemed important to your jurisdiction. It is critical that this team function collaboratively and its members hold each other accountable for participating in good faith. Check the egos and adversarialism at the door.

  • Help the laboratory develop monthly performance statements that document incoming work requests, completed testing, backlogs, and staffing levels in real time. There should be absolutely no ambiguity about the laboratory’s work capacity or its demand for services. With a reliable system of reporting the performance of the laboratory, each agency in the jurisdiction will be better positioned to participate more effectively in team discussions.

Two states are making news in the world of forensic science. Ohio and Wisconsin, both of which have crime laboratories that are managed by the states’ attorney general offices, have made significant progress in eliminating long-standing backlogs and directing resources to fix critical shortfalls in areas of their laboratories. As time passes, it will be interesting to learn if there is something about the authority possessed by an attorney general that gives his or her crime laboratories more leverage and independence to control backlogs and conduct business in a way that keeps the laboratory’s capacity in balance with the demand for its services.

In the end, it is probably not necessary to debate who are the rightful owners and custodians of forensic science. Those responsibilities are best left to those who demonstrate, through their own words and deeds, their willingness to support forensic science–and be willing to accept responsibility if things go wrong. Police chiefs who want to be in the forensic science business have a great opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to support forensic science and to be accountable. ♦


John M. Collins is a Forensic Science Policy and Management advisor at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. He is the former Director of Forensic Science for the Michigan State Police and the Chief Managing Editor of Crime Lab Report (www.crimelabreport.com). Collins has a master’s degree in organizational management and is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). Opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RTI International, a trademark of the Research Triangle Institute.


Notes:

1Saul M. Kassin et al., “The Forensic Confirmation Bias: Problems, Perspectives, and Proposed Solutions,” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 2, no. 1 (March 2013): 42–52.
2See for example, “Behind Boston Crime Lab Chemist’s Alleged Deceptions,” CBS This Morning, December 14, 2012, 8:26 a.m., www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57559175/behind-boston-crime-lab-chemists-alleged-deceptions (accessed July 22, 2013); Steve Neavling et al., “Dangerous Debris, Evidence Left in Closed Detroit Police Crime Lab,” Detroit Free Press, May 27, 2011, www.freep.com/article/20110527/NEWS01/105270414/Dangerous-debris-evidence-left-closed-Detroit-Police-crime-lab (accessed July 22, 2013); Jim Vertuno, “Texas Forensics Panel Gets Report on Houston Crime Lab,” Associated Press, April 5, 2013; and Madeleine Baran, “Troubled St. Paul Crime Lab Problems Even Worse Than First Thought, Probe Reveals,” Minnesota Public Radio News, February 14, 2013, minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2013/02/14/news/saint-paul-crime-lab-major-errors-found (accessed July 22, 2013).
3Tovia Smith, “Crime Lab Scandal Leaves Mass. Legal System in Turmoil,” NPR, March 14, 2013, www.npr.rg/2013/03/14/174269211/mass-crime-lab-scandal-reverberates-across-state (accessed July 22, 2013).
4Rebecca Trager, “Massachusetts Crime Lab Scandal Explodes,” Chemistry World, April 4, 2013, www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2013/04/us-massachusetts-forensic-lab-chemist-charged (accessed July 23, 2013).
5Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Sciences Community, National Research Council, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (August 2009), 12, www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/228091.pdf (accessed July 22, 2013).


Please cite as:

John M. Collins, "Rethinking the Ownership of Crime Labs: No Matter Who Is in Charge, Jurisdictional Commitment Is Key," The Police Chief 80 (September 2013): 30–32.


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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 9, September 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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