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Back to Archives | Back to November 2007 Contents 

Ensuring the Quality of Forensic Service Providers through Accreditation:The Illinois State Police Crime Scene Services Command Experience

By Frank Fitzpatrick, Police Science Accreditation Program Manager, Forensic Quality Services–International, Largo, Florida; and Terence Ely, Assistant Commander, Illinois State Police Crime Scene Services Command, Springfield, Illinois


he Houston Police Department has spent millions of dollars reviewing cases worked in its crime laboratory.1 The Boston Police Department shut down its latent-fingerprint unit after discovering incorrect results that led to the conviction of a man in a police officer shooting.2 Similar headlines have befallen other local and state police agencies.3

Whereas most police chiefs are trained to recognize whether they manage a healthy police organization, few have the time or technical skill to recognize the quality of analysis of the forensic service provider within their organizations. But the consequences of shoddy, incompetent, or pressured results can be momentous, including costs of lawsuits for innocent convictions or ruined careers—even the career of an agency’s chief law enforcement officer.

Who are the forensic service providers in your agency? They can range from traditional crime lab functions such as drug identification, DNA analysis, toxicology reports, and trace evidence analysis to latent print and Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) identification, firearms and bullet identification, crime scene investigation, digital-evidence examinations (computer forensics), and breath alcohol testing.

About 6,100 police and 1,900 sheriff departments report that they provide at least the forensic service of latent-fingerprint processing.4 Currently the Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) at West Virginia University is completing a census of non–crime laboratory forensic service providers to determine the number of agencies with these functions.5

What can chiefs do to ensure the quality of their operation? Without a doubt, participating in a forensic science accreditation program is the best hope of obtaining an unbiased evaluation of the forensic science operation within a law enforcement agency. This was the decision of the Illinois State Police Crime Scene Services Command, a statewide command of investigators performing crime scene investigation for their own agency and for other police agencies in the state, which became the first standalone crime scene investigation organization to become accredited under the requirements of ISO/IEC 17025 by Forensic Quality Services–International (FQS-I).

At the 2006 annual IACP conference in Boston, the association’s members supported a resolution recommended by the recently formed Forensics Committee recognizing the increasingly important role forensic science plays in the adjudication of criminal proceedings, as well as the reliance of the courts on forensic evidence and the results of various forensic analyses. The resolution also acknowledged that the results of forensic analyses must be reliable and accurate and that quality systems such as accreditation and certification play a large role in the accuracy and credibility of forensic analyses:

[T]he International Association of Chiefs of Police endorses and recommends that all crime laboratories and other forensic service providers strive to become accredited, and that the forensic practitioners who work in those laboratories or other forensic entities seek certification in their respective forensic disciplines; and . . . the IACP recommends that accreditation and certification be acquired from professionally recognized and accepted organizations, which are independent from the agency or person seeking accreditation/certification.6


History of Forensic Science Accreditation in the United States

In the mid-1970s, a national voluntary proficiency testing program was initiated and carried out by the Forensic Science Foundation with funding from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA).7 The reported results of this voluntary proficiency testing soon made frontpage headlines in most newspapers around the United States. The results reported from the voluntary testing implied serious concerns about the quality of work performed in some of the nation’s crime laboratories.

The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD), formed in 1974, quickly recognized the need to establish operational standards for crime laboratories. The ASCLD formed a Committee on Laboratory Evaluation and Standards, which after much debate and work became the ASCLD Committee on Laboratory Accreditation. Soon after this preliminary work was accomplished, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) was formed as a separate nonprofit corporation. From the first application of the Illinois State Police, the program has grown to 326 crime laboratories accredited by ASCLD/LAB as of August 10, 2007.8


ISO Accreditation

By 1998, it was recognized that the ASCLD/LAB program satisfied a need only among crime laboratories. Other forensic service providers were not able to avail themselves of the program due to policies that had been in place since the ASCLD/LAB first formed. Forensic laboratories engaging in primarily legal and regulatory work, such as drug-testing laboratories for horse racing, were unable to take advantage of this program.

The ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation program9 now operated by FQS-I had its roots in the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC). In 1998, the NFSTC was approached by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Enforcement Investigation Center (NEIC) to develop a program to accredit its laboratory to ISO Guide 25. The program was developed in 1999, and the laboratory was first assessed in 2000. At approximately the same time (1999), the first ISO/IEC 17025 standards were being published, and the Florida Racing Laboratory was assessed against those standards in 2000.


The Illinois State Police CSSC Experience


The Illinois State Police Division of Forensic Service is composed of two commands: the Forensic Sciences Command (FSC) and the Crime Scene Services Command (CSSC). The goal of both of these commands has been and continues to be providing timely, accurate, and technically sound forensic services to user agencies and the citizens of Illinois.

In many laboratories, crime scene processing is a discipline within their structure. At the Illinois State Police, this function is separate and distinct from the laboratory. The FSC was the first laboratory system to receive ASCLD/LAB accreditation and has recently been accredited to ISO standards as well. Although this accreditation had never been attempted before, CSSC personnel were determined to obtain it for their work. The first hurdle was to find an accrediting body willing to take on the task of accrediting a nontraditional forensic service provider. Forensic Quality Services–International (FQS-I) was the only vendor that was willing to take a chance on this small band of dedicated professionals.

The CSSC formed an accreditation committee and met with FQS representatives, who provided training about “the process.” During much of the first day of training, it was as if the presenters were speaking a foreign language. Although the trainers were speaking English, it was apparent in the glazed look in the eyes of the other participants that this was going to be no easy task. By the time the group started dissecting some of the CSSC’s policies and procedures the next day, confidence levels were rising. The staff began to feel once again that this accreditation could actually be accomplished. Over the next several months, committee members reviewed every policy, procedure, and manual in the command. All of this was completed in conjunction with its daily operations. Finally, the dreaded week arrived: the week of on-site assessments. Complete strangers scrutinized every aspect of the CSSC’s operation. The experience was not at all easy, but it was absolutely necessary to pursue this worthwhile endeavor.

At the end of the week, the hard work, dedication, and commitment paid off when the CSSC was contacted by Pat Wojtowicz, FQS-I’s accreditation manager, who informed the command that it had achieved full accreditation.

In a nutshell, ISO accreditation comes down to these two rules: say what you do and do what you say. What sage advice the CSSC can offer following its experience takes the form of these three words: preparation, preparation, preparation!


Accreditation of other laboratories followed. Many were private DNA laboratories, but in 2001 a public crime laboratory system, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), requested accreditation to the ISO/IEC 17025 standard. The GBI was already ISO 9001 certified; for them, introduction of the ISO/IEC 17025 standard would simplify their lives because they could dispense with ISO 9001 and deal with the quality management aspects through NFSTC ISO accreditation. At this time, the program was the only ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation program for forensic testing in the United States and was complementary to the ASCLD/LAB’s non-ISO accreditation of public crime laboratories.

In 2000, the NFSTC began to receive a fair amount of funding from the federal government, particularly the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), to develop programs to aid forensic science. In order to separate its government-funded activities from its cost recovery services, the NFSTC created an “FQS” business unit in 2001 to administer the cost recovery services. The accreditation program was part of the cost recovery services transferred to the FQS business unit.

As part of the program development for the NEIC, the NFSTC had agreed to seek and obtain external validation of the quality of operation of its accreditation program. In 2002, FQS applied to the National Cooperation for Laboratory Accreditation (NACLA) for recognition of its accreditation program. During the evaluations that followed the application, NACLA stated that recognition could not occur unless and until the FQS “consultancies” were operated apart from the ISO accreditations. The NFSTC responded by creating FQS-I as a separate business unit whose sole function was to administer the ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation program. NACLA recognition was granted in 2004.

The ASCLD/LAB ISO/IEC 17025 International Program was approved in 2003. In early 2005, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency laboratories became the first ASCLD/LAB ISO–accredited laboratories.10


Requirements of ISO/IEC 17025

ISO/IEC 17025, or, more formally, International Standard ISO/IEC 17025, General Requirements for the Competence of Testing and Calibration Laboratories, consists of two parts: the quality management system and technical aspects.

The quality management system section contains policies related to quality and top-management commitment to quality. Other standards involve document control, nonconforming work and corrective actions policies, preventive actions, control of records, and management reviews.

The technical aspects section includes personnel qualifications and training, records of tests performed, technical procedures employed on evidence, scientific validation of those procedures, physical space used for evidence storage and examination, security of records, proper functioning of equipment, storage of evidence, and tests given to personnel to ensure their ongoing competence.

Since ISO/IEC 17025 has such broad application for testing laboratories, international bodies have adopted supplemental requirements to make these requirements relevant to specific industries. For forensic service providers, ILAC G19:2002, Guidelines for Forensic Science Laboratories, “is intended to provide guidance for laboratories involved in forensic analysis and examination by providing application of ISO/IEC 17025.”11 Additional guidance is provided by additional requirements for accreditation in specific forensic disciplines.


Accreditation Resources

The International Organization for Standardization/International Electrotechnical Commission publishes a copyrighted document, General Requirements for the Competence of Testing and Calibration Laboratories, ISO/IEC 17025:2005, which cannot be photocopied. It can be obtained from many sources, including www.techstreet.com.

The International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation publishes Guidelines for Forensic Science Laboratories, ILACG19: 2002, which is available at http://www.ilac.org/documents/g19_2002.pdf (accessed September 26, 2007).

Police science accreditation ISO/IEC 17025:2000 checklists and forensic requirements for accreditation can be found at www.forquality.org.

American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) ISO accreditation information can be ordered at http://www.ascld-lab.org/international/aslabinternrequirements.html (accessed September 26, 2007).

Examples of policies for the development of a quality manual can be found at the National Forensic Science Technology Center Web site: http://nfstc.org/programs/index.htm (accessed September 26, 2007). From this page, click on “Quality Documents.”


How a Law Enforcement Agency Becomes Accredited

Whether a police organization decides to apply to an accrediting body for an on-site audit and award of accreditation, simply completing the requirements for ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation will improve the quality assurance system for the forensic service providers in the agency.

To prepare to meet accreditation standards, police organizations must complete the following actions.

Obtain a copy of ISO/IEC 17025: Agencies must be able to refer to the general accreditation guidelines as well as any additional requirements adopted by the accrediting body. For instance, FQS-I refers to these as “Forensic Requirements for Accreditation.” These are sometimes called “amplification” documents since they amplify the ISO standards specifically for forensic science organizations.

Understand the language of ISO/IEC 17025: This set of standards was universally written for “testing” laboratories. It can be applied to a wide range of laboratories, from pharmaceuticals and steel to forensic science. The language of the standard may need translation. For instance, ISO/IEC 17025 refers to “test items,” but police agencies would more commonly call these items evidence. Training is available by accrediting bodies to teach the principles of ISO/IEC 17025, and workshops are held at most forensic science professional meetings.

Train staff in the principles of self-auditing: As an agency develops policies and procedures to meet accreditation requirements, self-auditing is a necessary tool to see if the laboratory has put into practice the polices and procedures it has adopted. A common phrase in accreditation policy development is, “Say what you do and do what you say.”

Appoint a quality manager: No matter what title an agency uses, the quality manager is a key individual in maintaining the quality assurance system it adopts. Quality managers are responsible for ensuring that the system is maintained and improves. The quality assurance system includes all polices, procedures, commitments to quality practices, standard operating procedures, and roles and responsibilities of technical personnel.

Develop a strategy for policy and procedure development: To meet ISO/IEC 17025 standards, agencies may need to develop the policy and procedures for the forensic service provider by looking at current business practices. In many instances, existing general orders as well as personnel and administrative policies are applicable to satisfying standards. Although it is instructive to look at the policies and procedures of other ISO-accredited forensic service providers, an agency’s documents should be tailored to its own business practices.

Adopt a quality manual: The quality manual documents policies and procedures, systems, and programs to help ensure the quality of the analytical results. The value of the manual is that it lets people know what to do and how to do it, providing a road map to confirm that employees have acted appropriately.

Perform a self-audit: Also called a gap analysis, a self-audit is designed to reveal any “gaps” between the requirements of ISO/IEC 17025, any amplifications documents, any legal requirements,12 an agency’s own adopted policies and procedures and how the agency actually applies them.

Apply for accreditation: For accreditation, a forensic service provider will submit an application to either of the forensic accreditation bodies. The accreditation manager will consider the sufficiency of the application and estimate the amount of time and number of external auditors needed to visit the agency site. These factors, as well as travel expenses, will drive the cost of the audit. Additional costs of maintaining accreditation include how often audits are performed, whether on-site or off-site surveillance audits are performed, and whether any maintenance fees are charged.

Accreditation will provide a framework to continually improve the quality of an agency’s forensic service provider and will provide a mechanism for an external, unbiased evaluation of the work the agency performs, as the Illinois State Police has found.

Some may complain about the cost and work of accreditation. However, the cost of not obtaining accreditation, in terms of loss of public confidence, lawsuits against an agency for consequences of errors, and loss of careers, is far greater.■


Frank Fitzpatrick is the retired laboratory director of the Orange County, California, Sheriff’s Department Forensic Science Services Division. He is a past board member and chair of the ASCLD/LAB and presently serves as police science accreditation project manager for FQS-I. He is a trained ISO/IEC 17025 auditor and lecturer in accreditation and audit principles.

Lieutenant Terry Ely began his career with the Illinois State Police in 1989 as a patrol trooper. He was assigned as a crime scene investigator to the Crime Scene Services Command (CSSC) in 1995. Lieutenant Ely is presently assigned as an assistant commander in the CSSC and is chairman of the CSSC ISO committee.

Notes:

1See, for example, Michael R. Bromwich, Final Report of the Independent Investigator for the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory and Property Room, June 13, 2007, http://www.hpdlabinvestigation.org/reports/070613report.pdf (accessed September 26, 2007).
2Denise Lavoie, “Boston Police to Reopen Fingerprint Lab after Overhaul,” Associated Press, December 25, 2005, http://www.bpdnews.com/2006/01/boston_police_to_reopen_finger_1.html (accessed September 26, 2007).
3Rene Stutzman, “Fingerprint Scandal Extends Grip,” Orlando Sentinel, May 24, 2007, http://www.fadp.org/news/os-20070525/ (accessed September 26, 2007); and Massachusetts State Police, “Secretary Burke and Colonel Mark Delaney Endorse Recommendations of Crime Lab Management Review: Science Is Strong, Backlog Reduction Critical Priority,” press release, July 19, 2007, http://www.mass.gov/Eeops/docs/featurestory/07162007_Revised_Release_Crime_Lab.doc (accessed September 26, 2007).
4U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, 1992, by Brian A. Reaves, NCJ 142972 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1993).
5Contact Dr. Tom Witt, director of the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research, via e-mail at tom.witt@mail.wvu.edu for more information.
6International Association of Chiefs of Police, “Resolution: Forensic Science Accreditation and Certification,” October 17, 2006, http://www.theiacp.org/resolutions/2006Resolutions.pdf (accessed September 27, 2007).
7American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board–International, “History,” http://www.ascld-lab.org/dual/aslabdualhistory.html (accessed September 26, 2007).
8American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board–International, “Laboratories Accredited by ASCLD/LAB,” http://www.ascld-lab.org/legacy/aslablegacylaboratories.html (accessed September 26, 2007).
9ISO indicates the International Organization for Standardization, IEC identifies the International Electrotechnical Commission, and “17025” is the series identification for its international standard on testing competency. The standard consists of two parts: the first deals with quality management systems, and the second deals with technical aspects. The ISO/IEC 17025 requirements document is copyrighted and available for a fee from many publishing houses (see sidebar on accreditation resources).
10American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board–International, “ASCLD/LAB-International Directory of Accredited Laboratories,” http://www.ascld-lab.org/cgi-bin/iso/csvsearch.pl?search=dea&order_by=lab&order=abc (accessed September 26, 2007).
11International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation, “Guidance Series,” http://www.ilac.org/guidanceseries.html (accessed September 26, 2007).
12For forensic DNA laboratories seeking accreditation in DNA analysis in addition to the other requirements, they must meet the requirements of the FBI DNA Quality Assurance Audit document, titled Quality Assurance Audit for Forensic DNA and Convicted Offender DNA Databasing Laboratories, available at http://www.fbi.gov/hq/lab/fsc/backissu/july2004/pdfs/seubert.pdf (accessed September 26, 2007).


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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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