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Back to Archives | Back to September 2009 Contents 

From the Director

NIJ—Improving All Forensic Sciences

Kristina Rose, Acting Director, National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.



his issue of the Police Chief focuses on forensics in law enforcement, an issue important to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and this column provides me an opportunity to talk about a few of NIJ’s forensic projects.

NIJ recently received the results of a study that looked at what effect sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) have on rape cases as they move through the stages of reporting, investigation, and prosecution. The researchers found that having DNA evidence in a case significantly affected how far a case moved through the criminal justice system—from reporting to prosecution to ultimate disposition—and that having a SANE collect evidence in a sexual assault case further increased such cases’ reporting and prosecution. The number of sexual assault cases referred by police for prosecution increased by 6 percent—and the number of guilty pleas and convictions increased by 5 percent—after SANE programs were implemented in a Midwestern state.1

These research results will be important to our law enforcement partners who are constantly operating under time and budget constraints. Jim Markey, a sergeant with the Phoenix, Arizona, Police Department, recently told me how important it is to have a SANE on his multidisciplinary team. “I like the ‘real time’ medical information we get from the SANEs when we are engulfed in the initial stages of a rape investigation,” he said. “It helps with our probable cause and potential arrest.”2

In another project, NIJ-funded researchers recently showed that it is possible to obtain a DNA profile of sperm beyond the standard three-day window that many jurisdictions now use for collecting evidence from a rape victim. This groundbreaking project shows that by using particular evidence collection procedures and lab analysis protocols, it is possible to obtain a DNA profile up to five or six days after a sexual assault. Police Chief readers will understand the potential policy ramifications.

Many of the magazine’s readers are familiar with NIJ’s major five-city experiment that showed collecting DNA in burglary cases can result in twice the number of suspect identifications, arrests, and prosecutions compared to collecting only fingerprint evidence.3 One thing that study revealed is that with good training, first-responder officers can recover biological evidence from a property crime scene just as well as forensics technicians can.4 NIJ is now expanding this research model to see if similar results are possible in investigating and solving car theft cases.

Of course, there are many forensic disciplines beyond DNA, and NIJ remains dedicated to improving all of the forensic sciences. Many readers are familiar with the report published earlier this year by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which addresses the U.S. need to improve the reliability of the non-DNA forensics disciplines. The study received a great deal of attention from Congress and the media. Lawyers—both prosecution and defense—have had a lot to say about the report. But it is very important to understand what the report does not say. Nowhere in the report does NAS state that non-DNA forensic disciplines should be abandoned. Rather, the report says that many of the non-DNA forensic disciplines need further scientific validation.

NIJ has been dedicating funds towards that very goal for years. Over the past five years, we have provided more than $66 million in competitively awarded research grants to the scientific community to improve the nation’s understanding and scientific foundation of the forensic disciplines. Just this summer, NIJ dedicated $10 million to studying the reliability of firearms and tool mark identification, fire debris analysis and arson scene investigations, fingerprint evidence, blood pattern analysis, and digital evidence. One thing in particular we want to examine is the potential for human error in non-DNA analyses.

The President’s budget recommends adding an extra $10 million for our Coverdell program,5 which, among other things, is helping our nation’s crime labs deal with the tremendous backlog of forensic evidence waiting testing.

Finally, we were honored to receive an Excellence in Technology Award6 from the IACP for our NamUs project (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System). NamUs is a searchable repository made up of two databases: missing persons and unidentified decedents. The system’s innovative forensic resources are helping to identify human remains and solve cold cases. For readers unfamiliar with NamUs, please see page 53 of this issue or explore this online tool at www.namus.gov.

I also encourage readers to go to www.dna.gov and www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/ to learn more about how our work matters to your work. ■

Notes:

1Rebecca Campbell, Deborah Bybee, J. Kevin Ford, and Debra Patterson, “Systems Change Analysis of SANE Programs: Identifying the Mediating Mechanisms of Criminal Justice System Impact: Project Summary,” (April 2008), 6, table 1, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/226498.pdf (accessed July 22, 2009).
2Jim Markey, personal communications, June 5, 2009.
3Nancy Ritter, “DNA Solves Property Crimes (But Are We Ready for That?),” NIJ Journal No. 261 http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/journals/261/dna-solves-property-crimes.htm (accessed August 4, 2009). For the full study see John K. Roman, Shannon Reid, Jay Reid, Aaron Chalfin, William Adams, Carly Knight, “The DNA Field Experiment: Cost-Effectiveness Analysis of the Use of DNA in the Investigtaion of High-Volume Crimes” (Washington DC: Urban Institute, 2008), http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/222318.pdf (accessed August 4, 2009).
4For DNA training opportunities, visit dna.gov/.
5The Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants Program (the Coverdell program) awards grants to states and units of local government to help improve the quality and timeliness of forensic science and medical examiner services. Among other things, funds may be used to eliminate a backlog in the analysis of forensic evidence and to train and employ forensic laboratory personnel, as needed, to eliminate such a backlog. States may apply for both “base” (formula) and competitive funds. Units of local government may apply for competitive funds. Further information is available at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/topics/forensics/nfsia/welcome.htm (accessed July 14, 2009).
6For more information about the Excellence in Technology Award and the winners, visit the IACP Web site at http://www.theiacp.org/About/Awards/IACPExcellenceinTechnologyAwardProgram/Winners/tabid/577/Default.aspx (accessed July 14, 2009).

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 9, September 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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