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Back to Archives | Back to September 2009 Contents 

Forensic Science: A Critical Concern for Police Chiefs

By Joseph Polski, Chief Operating Officer, International Association for Identification, Mendota Heights, Minnesota, and member of the IACP Forensic Science Committee



n February 18, 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a longawaited report from its committee charged with identifying the needs of the forensic science community. The final 254-page report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, is the culmination of approximately 18 months of meetings and testimony. The report contains 13 recommendations affecting the forensic science community in the United States. Many of the recommendations, such as advocating additional research to validate the scientific basis of some forensic disciplines—especially pattern evidence disciplines such as fingerprint identification—are noncontroversial and endorsed by the IACP. Others are more controversial and, in the opinion of the IACP’s Forensic Committee and the IACP leadership, not in the best interest of the nation’s police departments.

Funded by a $1.5 million dollar congressional appropriation, the study was championed by the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations (CFSO), comprising six forensic science organizations.1 Each CFSO member organization comprises forensic practitioners or those that support forensic science.

The study was commissioned to call attention to the general field of forensic science (other than DNA). The President’s DNA Initiative, begun around 2003, proposed a billion dollars to fund DNA programs but provided no support for other forensic disciplines. Studies by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) show that DNA analyses account for, at best, 6-7 percent of the forensic services provided by crime laboratories and law enforcement units. The NAS study would be the basis for legislation to recognize and provide funding for the broader forensic service community.

One of the NAS recommendations of particular interest to the IACP is the recommendation to remove all forensic services (crime labs, identification units, crime scene units, and so forth) from law enforcement management. The recommendation in the summary of the NAS report reads as follows:

To improve the scientific basis of forensic science examinations and to maximize independence from or autonomy within the law enforcement community, Congress should authorize and appropriate incentive funds to the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS) for allocation to state and local jurisdictions for the purpose of removing all public forensic laboratories and facilities from the administrative control of law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices.2

The IACP’s Forensic Committee and the IACP’s Executive Committee are strongly opposed to this recommendation. There is no compelling reason, nor obvious improvement in quality, to be gained from implementing this recommendation. Numerous political and operational obstacles quickly appear: Who would manage these “separate entities”? How would they be funded? Given there are approximately 18,000 police departments in the United States, this recommendation appears, on its face, to create a myriad of management and political issues for state and local law enforcement agencies and would be difficult if not impossible to accomplish.

Because some in the political process strongly advocate for this recommendation, it is important to be aware of congressional action to achieve its implementation. The IACP Legislative Liaison is actively working with CFSO leadership to craft legislation that does not include this mandate.


Accreditation and Certification

A second recommendation of particular interest to police administrators is that of mandatory accreditation of forensic entities and certification of forensic service providers. That includes identification units, fingerprint units, and crime scene units.

While quality systems such as accreditation and certification are commonplace in crime laboratories, they are rare in police department forensic units. It is important to realize that testimony presented by a fingerprint examiner working in an identification or fingerprint unit is given the same weight as that of a DNA analyst with an advanced degree working in an accredited crime laboratory. Yet, there is a world of difference in the requirements to perform DNA analysis and fingerprint analysis. Through the experience of the International Association for Identification, it has been found that often fingerprint examiners are drawn from sworn personnel who may or may not be particularly suited for forensic work. Policies and procedures are ad hoc, depending on the agency. Training varies widely, depending on the resources available to the unit or the attitude of management toward forensic training. All too often, headlines are made and millions of dollars are paid when wrong conclusions are discovered, sometimes years later. It is in the best interest of police departments to support accreditation and certification and very difficult to make a plausible argument against those quality systems. It is important to note that accreditation of forensic services is not the same as CALEA accreditation. Entities such as the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors—Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD-LAB) or Forensic Quality Services (FQS) offer such accreditation.

Accreditation of the unit/organization and the certification of practitioners cost precious dollars. The current federal legislation being proposed in response to the NAS Committee Report provides funding for these activities. It is important that police executives be aware of this recommendation and pursue funding for these activities as it becomes available.

Given the more stringent requirements required by accreditation and certification, it is possible that a decision will be made to cease providing some of these services, particularly smaller departments with only one or a few people doing this kind of work. That is a decision each administrator will need to consider given all the facts at hand. The IACP’s Forensic Committee will be happy to assist any police executive faced with this decision and provide information on sources of funding or other technical assistance.


IACP Forensics Policy

On April 17 and 18, 2009, the governing body of IACP, the Executive Committee, met in San Antonio, Texas. Among the items discussed were the NAS recommendations. The Forensic Committee of the IACP made a presentation regarding the NAS study and offered action steps and policies for consideration by the IACP leadership. Subsequently the IACP governing body adopted the following as the official position of the IACP respecting the NAS study.



The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) is strongly committed to enhancing the delivery of forensic science services throughout the United States and the world.

Policy Elements

  • The IACP is very concerned that the recent Forensics Report from the National Academy of Sciences was developed without input from law enforcement practitioners.

  • The IACP is strongly opposed to the removal of crime laboratories and other forensic services from law enforcement agencies.

  • The IACP agrees with, and supports, the need for accreditation and certification of forensic science providers. (2006 Resolution)

  • Because of the costs associated with accreditation and certification efforts, the IACP is strongly opposed to proposals that would institute “mandatory” accreditation/certification requirements in the absence of secure, sustainable, and stable federal assistance funding.

  • The IACP supports the development, inclusive of federal, state, county, local, and tribal representation, of an entity to establish standards and practices and to serve as a funding source for forensic science services.

  • The IACP strongly believes that all research and other initiatives that are designed to study/enhance the delivery of forensic sciences must include the participation of law enforcement practitioners.

  • The IACP is committed to working with the CFSO and other stakeholder organizations to develop practical approaches to enhancing the delivery of forensic sciences in the United States and around the world.

These positions will be relayed to Congress as legislative proposals are crafted to implement the NAS recommendations. The resulting legislation has the potential to directly affect police departments and their forensic capabilities. The IACP will closely monitor proposed legislation to ensure it is in the best interest of law enforcement and IACP members and provide periodic updates. ■

Notes:

1For more information visit the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations’ Web site at www.thecfso.org/.
2Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, Recommendation 4 (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2009), 24.

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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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