By Frank Fitzpatrick, Principal, Forensic Management Consulting, Placentia, California; and Detective Lieutenant Kenneth Martin, Crime Scene Services Section, Massachusetts State Police, Sudbury, Massachusetts
he recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,1 contains several controversial recommendations for U.S. law enforcement agencies to consider.2 However, the strengthening of oversight of forensic science practice should not be controversial.
The NAS report calls for requiring mandatory accreditation of all forensic science provider operations and certification of the practitioners who work there. Even though accreditation and certification should be mandatory components of an agency’s quality assurance program, the report observes that “… most jurisdictions do not require forensic practitioners to be certified, and most forensic science disciplines have no mandatory certification programs. Moreover, accreditation of crime laboratories is not required in most jurisdictions.”3
The International Association of Chiefs of Police was ahead of the National Academy of Sciences when, at the 113th Annual IACP Conference held in Boston, Massachusetts, in 2006, the members supported a resolution recommended by the then-recently formed Forensics Committee. The resolution, “Forensic Science Accreditation and Certification,” recognizes the increasingly important role forensic science plays in adjudicating criminal proceedings and how much the courts rely on forensic evidence and the results of various forensic analyses.
The resolution also acknowledges 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 forensic analyses’ accuracy and credibility. The resolution underscores this message:
… [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 be it [f]urther [r]esolved that 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.4
As to “professionally recognized and accepted organizations,” the NAS report and the forensic science community specifically recognize an international standard—ISO 17025—as the gold standard in forensic service provider accreditation.
What ISO 17025 Requires
ISO 17025 or, more formally, International Standard ISO/EIC 17025 “General Requirements for the Competence of Testing and Calibration Laboratories,”5 consists of two parts: the quality management system and technical aspects.
The quality management system contains policies related to quality and top management’s commitment to quality. Other standards involve document control, nonconforming work and corrective actions policies, preventive actions, control of records, and management reviews.
Technical aspects include 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 testing of personnel to ensure their ongoing competency.
Since ISO 17025 applies so broadly to testing laboratories, international bodies adopt 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.”6 More guidance is also provided by additional requirements of accreditation in specific forensic disciplines.
What If You Don’t Have a Crime Lab
The definition of a crime laboratory has evolved from the days of blood and drug testing to encompass all activities that test evidence in criminal and civil cases. The NAS report specifically encompasses the following disciplines:
- Biological Evidence
- Analysis of Controlled Substances
- Friction Ridge Analysis
- Shoeprints and Tire Tracks
- Toolmark and Firearms Identification
- Analysis of Hair Evidence
- Analysis of Fiber Evidence
- Questioned Document Examination
- Analysis of Paint and Coatings Evidence
- Analysis of Explosives Evidence and Fire Debris
- Forensic Odontology
- Bloodstain Pattern Analysis
- Crime Scene Investigation
The NAS report does not include DNA, since it had been the subject of previous NAS reports.
The list reveals that most, if not all, police agencies engage in one or more of these activities; therefore, accreditation should apply to identification units commonly located within police agencies.
Certification or Litigation?
The Houston, Texas, Police Department has spent millions of dollars reviewing cases worked in its crime lab.7 The Boston, Massachusetts, Police Department shut down their latent fingerprint unit after discovering an error that led to a man’s conviction in a police officer shooting and was forced to bring in contractors, at great expense, to work past and present cases.8 The Los Angeles, California, Police Department also discovered that errors had been made in its latent print operations requiring review of cases and retraining.9
No matter the cost of accreditation, it is always less than litigation. Eliminating shoddy work that exposes an agency to potential litigation is insurance. In addition, the objective review of an agency’s operations reassures chiefs that the work their forensic science providers do is of the highest order.
Just like other professions, such as doctors, nurses, teachers, or plumbers, forensic examiners can be certified. Before offering testimony in a court of law where an individual’s fate hangs in the balance, expert witnesses should be certified in the forensic discipline about which they are testifying.
It does cost money to certify those forensic examiners assigned to the unit. However, ensuring an examiner’s work will pay for itself by averting possible litigation resulting from inferior work.
This financial argument applies to agencies housing a nontraditional forensic laboratory as well. Agencies can pursue programs available both in the areas of accreditation and certifications.10
The NAS report also recommends that sufficient resources be made available to help agencies implement these as well as other recommendations proposed in the report. Without the commitment of adequate funding, along with the continued dedication of such resources, affected agencies will not be able to implement accreditation and certification. ■
1Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2009).
2Meredith Mays, “IACP Responds to National Academy of Sciences Report on Forensics,” The Police Chief 76 (July 2009): 8. 3Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, 6.
4International Association of Chiefs of Police, Resolution FOR023.a06, “Forensic Science Accreditation and Certification,” resolution adopted at the 113th Annual IACP Conference, Boston, Massachusetts, October 17, 2006, http://www.iacp.org/resolution/2006Resolutions.pdf (accessed July 31, 2009).
5ISO 17025 accreditation is provided by ASCLD/LAB-International (http://www.ascld-lab.org/international/aslabinternrequirements.html) and Forensic Quality Services-International (www.forquality.org).
6The ILAC Technical Accreditation Issues Committee, Guidelines for Forensic Science Laboratories, ILAC-G19:2002 (International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation, 2002), 4, http://www.ilac.org/documents/g19_2002.pdf (accessed August 4, 2009).
7“Crime Lab Report: Hundreds of Cases Mishandled,” Click2Houston.com, June 13, 2007, http://www.click2houston.com/news/13493311/detail.html (accessed August 3, 2009).
8Suzanne Smalley, “Police Shutter Print Unit: Identification Error, Critical Report Cited,” Boston Globe, October 14, 2004, http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2004/10/14/police_shutter_print_unit/ (accessed August 3, 2009).
9Richard Winton, “Errors Trigger Reviews of LAPD Fingerprint Files,” Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2009, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jan/15/local/me-fingerprint15 (accessed August 3, 2009).
10For more information, see the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation, Guidelines for Forensic Science Laboratories and see the Web sites for the Forensics Specialty Accreditation Board at http://thefsab.org/accredited.html and the International Association for Identification at http://theiai.org/certifications/.