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Back to Archives | Back to November 2007 Contents 

Forensic Science: A Fundamental Perspective

By Julian Fantino, Commissioner, Ontario Provincial Police, Orillia, Ontario, Canada


Though offering a fundamental perspective on the many complexities of forensic science, this article is intended simply to introduce the reader to the informative articles authored by members of the IACP Forensics Committee as featured in this issue ofThe Police Chief.


he evolution of law enforcement has benefited greatly from the many extraordinary advances in the field of forensic science—the application of scientific processes to solve legal problems most notably within the context of the criminal justice system. Be it the long-established use of fingerprint analysis, the examination of tool or bullet markings, chemical analyses, or the more recent, extraordinary advances that have been made in DNA technology, forensic science has been and continues to be one of the most valued and productive resources available to law enforcement and indeed to the justice system as a whole.

For the most part, police work as we know it has remained relatively unchanged over the passage of time; responding to calls for service, investigating crime, and dealing with victims and offenders, for example, have been constants. What has changed dramatically in law enforcement over the years, however, are the aspects of the profession that relate to the application of science and technology within the realm of the very demanding investigative processes that have become the norm for modern-day law enforcement officers. In fact, members of the profession serve as both witnesses to and protagonists in what can accurately be described as an explosion of progress in the field of forensic science and technology—advancements that will surely continue to grow exponentially in the future and for which police leaders must be well prepared.

There is an element of public and media interest in forensic science, especially about the relevance and application of forensic science in detecting and solving sophisticated crimes. This interest is represented in the popularity of such fictional characters as Sherlock Holmes, Dick Tracy, and Perry Mason, not to mention today’s CSI television series, and has created continued and growing benefits for law enforcement especially. Some call this the “CSI effect,” where unrealistic portrayals of the science have translated to equally unrealistic expectations from not only the public but also other professions that operate within the justice system who now apparently believe in magic. But whether depicted in fiction or reality and regardless of the various sciences involved—biological, trace, impression, ballistics, toxicological, chemical, pathological, psychiatric, computer, and more—it can be accurately stated that the greatest advances made in law enforcement methods have been in the areas of science and technology. These continually growing areas will enable law enforcement professionals to become ever more proficient and effective in investigating crime scenes to the most ethical and accurate resolutions of crime and victimization.


The Evolution of Forensic Science

An early account of the use of forensic science can be traced back to the second century BCE; however, as recently as the 1970s forensic analysts relied only on the ABO blood identification system to make biological determinations. Then came advances in the breakdown of blood groups into subgroups based on enzyme categories, which at the time proved to be tremendous scientific progress.

Then came the huge scientific breakthrough in the 1980s, when British geneticist Sir Alec J. Jeffreys first used DNA to identify an individual.1 The rest is history. As important as this breakthrough was at first, much like the progress made in the advancements of the ABO enzyme blood identification system, DNA analysis has continued to make steady and impressive technological advances, further enhancing its investigative benefit.


Threats to Scientific Integrity

As agencies rely increasingly on results of forensic analysis, leaders must guard against the dangers of junk science resulting from a lack of funding, dated processes and substandard scientific benchmarks, and inadequately trained and qualified personnel, not to mention a host of other flawed applications of the rigors necessary for the effective collection, analysis, and interpretation of scientific evidence. This common flaw has, in one way or another, resulted in grave miscarriages of justice with equally grave consequences for the reputations of experts and the institutions they represent, such as forensic laboratories. Both the conviction of innocent persons and the acquittal of guilty perpetrators are potential end results of both human and technological failings in the application of forensic science within the ambit of the criminal justice system.

Even though horror stories of such injustices abound, the law enforcement profession appears to show only moderate enthusiasm for holding every aspect of forensic analysis to the highest standards possible, including proper resources, training, equipment, processes, and integrity benchmarks, such as the accreditation of forensic laboratories. All are fundamental prerequisites of forensic science engagement within the criminal justice field, about which there must be no compromise whatsoever. To do otherwise is to risk bringing the administration of justice into disrepute.

In simple terms, steps must be taken to connect all the dots, from the beginning to the end of the process, in order to ensure that the findings resulting from the application of forensic science can withstand vigorous challenge and that the conclusions are beyond reproach across all disciplines, without exceptions or shortcuts. In other words, every aspect of forensic scientific analysis must be conducted in a flawless and uncompromised fashion.

Remembering what is at stake—personal and professional reputations, the potential miscarriage of justice, lawsuits, and much more—should cause any law enforcement leader to demand a total and holistic approach to ensuring the absolute integrity of both the science and all those who in any way operate in such a personally and professionally high-risk environment.

Although the number of stories about flawed forensic science cases is mounting, many of these are historical; it is fair to state that in today’s technologically and scientifically advanced, knowledge-based environment a much higher threshold of accuracy exists than those of previous eras. As a result of the lessons learned along the way, the field has matured substantially, but much work is still to be done to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. In essence, absolute integrity is demanded throughout the chain of continuity, from the beginning to the end of the criminal justice process, in both the application and the interpretation of forensic science, regardless of the discipline, process, or expertise.


The Future of Forensic Science

As with other areas of the law enforcement mandate, the expectation that forensic science contributes to the integrity of the entire justice system in a critical, relevant way puts more and more pressure on scientists, laboratories, and law enforcement professionals.

For the law enforcement profession, as well as for many others, the future will definitely be more challenging. The ever-growing sophistication of local and multinational crime, the expansion and sophistication of organized crime networks, and the increasing threat of terrorism will require an unprecedented commitment of resources to the application of science and technology in many aspects of public safety as well as national and international security.

Near-future challenges to law enforcement resources and resourcefulness include local and transnational criminals engaging in more elaborate schemes, the increased movement of money through sophisticated local and international communications systems, and, most disconcerting of all, the migration of criminal enterprises to terrorism-related activities—yet another fertile opportunity to illegally turn a financial profit. Even unsophisticated terrorists will resort to organized crime to finance their murderous plans.

The fact that most established police agencies are undertaking additional steps to resolve the unsolved case files on outstanding serious violent crimes by using the benefits of the latest sciences and technology, with many achieving great success, represents yet another testimonial to the importance of making continuous progress and keeping pace with the need to invest in technological and scientific research.


The IACP Forensics Committee

Equally important is the commitment of policy makers to ensuring a balance of suspects’ rights and entitlements with those of victims and their families, who await justice that can happen only when appropriate legislation is enacted and appropriate resources are readily available in the law enforcement tool chest—a chest that still has plenty of room for technological and scientific tools.

For these reasons and more, the IACP has formally established a Forensics Committee as a standing committee. The IACP recognizes the significant positive impact of forensic science on the criminal justice system. The committee boasts an impressive membership list, consisting of forensic scientists and law enforcement professionals who in a relatively short time have embarked on a number of ambitious projects, most notably the August Vollmer Excellence in Forensic Science Award in four categories:

  • Innovation in forensic technology

  • Significant investigative value in a major crime

  • Proactive contribution over years (police agency award)

  • Positive contribution over years (agency or individual award)

August Vollmer (1876–1955), considered the “father of American policing,” pioneered many of the innovations that continue to define modern police work. While chief of police in Berkeley, California, Vollmer served as IACP president in 1921–1922. Vollmer promoted the use of new forensics technology, including fingerprinting, polygraph machines, and crime laboratories.

Vollmer also contributed to the development of radio communications, improvements in crime analysis, and the creation of patrol districts based on crime data, and he encouraged education and professionalism in policing.


Conclusion

The process of connecting the forensic science dots to achieve simply the absolute best results possible for the public and for law enforcement in a way that embraces science has a unique opportunity for growth with no ultimate ending, serving in the best interest of the greater good. The way of the future is continued, sustained progress in the development and application of innovations in forensic science and technology, which represents a valuable asset for the law enforcement profession in the fight against crime and terrorism.

The CSI effect is here to stay, and so, too, is the commitment of the IACP to providing leadership and support to its members around the globe by advancing the relevance and importance of forensic science as yet another resource integral to law enforcement.■


Note:

1Sir Alec John Jeffreys, British geneticist (b. 1950), was educated at Oxford University, where he completed his Ph.D. in 1975. Conducting his research at the University of Leicester, he is noted as the discoverer of the technique known as genetic (or DNA) fingerprinting. Jeffreys’s DNA profiling technique was the basis for the UK National DNA Database, launched in the United Kingdom in 1995. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1986, appointed as a Royal Society Research Professor in 1991, and knighted in 1994. In 1996 he was awarded the Albert Einstein World Award of Science.


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From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 11, November 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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