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The Changing Face of Forensic Science: What Police Chiefs Need to Know about National Forensic Science Initiatives

By Dean M. Gialamas, Director, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Scientific Services Bureau

Latent Fingerprint Processing
Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Scientific Services Bureau, Photo-Digital Imaging Section
Since the introduction of modern sciences into law enforcement in the late 1920s with what is called today “crime labs,” a tremendous revolution in the application of technology to fight and prevent crime has occurred. Much like the advent of advanced radio and GPS technology in patrol cars, forensic science has become an essential tool and aids in solving investigations in ways traditional approaches could not. Tremendous change has occurred in the forensic sciences in the decades that have passed—the two recently most notable areas are forensic DNA analysis and the investigation of computer crimes using digital forensics.

With these technological changes, however, has come greater scrutiny of forensic science. The fascination with crime scene investigations puts additional focus on those who are “in the trenches” day in and day out. With this increased attention, law enforcement executives and administrators need to be aware of some key changes that could affect the future of forensic science—whether the agencies provide their own forensic services or not.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Report on Forensic Science

DNA Extraction
In February 2009, a landmark report issued by the National Academy’s National Research Council entitled Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward created significant focus on forensic science. A great deal of interest and activity has been seen by professional organizations, including the IACP and the National Sheriff’s Association (NSA), as well as by legal scholars, judges, attorneys, academics, media, and the public. Furthermore, it has garnered the attention of Congress, the White House, and federal agencies, all of which have embarked on parallel tracks in an attempt to deal with the 13 recommendations in the NAS report. Ultimately, this report brings opportunities to make unprecedented changes to the structure and delivery of forensic science in the United States.

Although it is not within the scope of this article to repeat the details of the NAS report recommendations, it is worthy to summarize its key 13 recommendations here.

  1. Create a National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS), which will provide independent federal oversight of all forensic operations.
  2. Establish standard terminology and report writing.
  3. Conduct research into the accuracy, reliability, and validity of forensic science disciplines.
  4. Remove all public forensic operations from administrative control of law enforcement and prosecutor’s offices.
  5. Conduct research into human observer bias and sources of error in forensic testing.
  6. Develop tools for standards and best practices.
  7. Require mandatory laboratory accreditation and individual certification.
  8. Develop established quality assurance and quality control procedures.
  9. Create a national code of ethics for forensic professionals.
  10. Improve and develop national standards for education in forensic science.
  11. Enhance medico-legal death investigation through
    1. replacing all coroner systems with medical examiner systems;
    2. providing research, education, and training in forensic pathology;
    3. developing standards for death scene investigation and postmortem examinations;
    4. requiring mandatory accreditation of medical examiner offices; and
    5. requiring that all autopsies be performed by board-certified forensic pathologists.
  12. Provide funding for nationwide fingerprint data interoperability.
  13. Provide funding for preparing forensic professionals to train for roles in homeland security.

Overall, these recommendations were embraced by the leadership in the forensic community. However, there were two that particularly stood out as more controversial than the others and have been the focus of many discussions: The creation of NIFS and the removal of all public forensic operations from the control of law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices. Its context addresses congressional concerns, and it was not designed as a thorough scientific review or a treatise for admissibility practices or decisions in court. The complexity of the report leads to two fundamental concepts to create positive change: standardization in education, training, research, and forensic science delivery; and adequate, sustainable, and predictable funding and resources.

Since the publication of the NAS report, Congress, the White House, and federal agencies have taken action to address the charge on forensic science initiatives.

Federal Legislation

The first attempt to respond to the NAS report was created under Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. In January 2011, S. 132, the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act of 2011, was introduced. The bill details the creation of a national body and a support arm—an oversight body called the Office of Forensic Science (OFS) under the Office of the Deputy Attorney General and an advisory body called the Forensic Science Board within the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The OFS would determine the national forensic science agendas and standards and would issue a short-term road map to Congress.

A second, similarly worded draft legislative bill was introduced by Senator John D. Rockefeller, IV (D-WV) in July 2012, S. 3378, the Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2011. This bill establishes the National Forensic Science Coordinating Office (NFSCO) within the National Science Foundation and a Forensic Science Advisory Committee that would serve to advise the NFSCO, NIST, and the Department of Justice. The NFSCO would determine national forensic science research and standards agendas and issue a five-year roadmap to Congress.

White House Interagency Working Groups

The second major effort toward forensic science initiatives came from the White House under the direction of President Obama through the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Several committees are under the OSTP, ultimately reaching the level of forensic science: the Subcommittee on Forensic Science (SoFS).(See figure 1.) The SoFS was “charged with developing practical and timely approaches to enhancing the validity and reliability of the federal government’s forensic science activities.”1 The SoFS was chartered in March 2010 under the directive of the president and reached its sunset in December 2012.

Under the SoFS structure, five interagency working groups (IWGs) addressed key areas of forensic science as delineated in the NAS report, which included

  • Standards, Practices and Protocols;
  • Accreditation and Certification
  • Outreach and Communication
  • Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation
  • Education and Ethics.

The IWGs comprised more than 200 representatives from federal, regional, state, and local entities to facilitate coordinated efforts to address concerns raised in the NAS report at the federal, state, and local level. These topics included, but were not limited to, scientific integrity, uniform code of ethics, forensic science standards development, accreditation, certification, proficiency testing, cognitive bias, research and development, report writing, education and training, AFIS interoperability, and uniform vocabulary. The five IWGs convened with the purpose of exchanging views, information, and advice relating to the management and implementation of federal programs relating to forensic science. Although the SoFS and its IWGs have been diligently working on 12 policy recommendations, none have been published for public dissemination.

National Commission on Forensic Science

Firearms Cartridge Case Search
The third effort toward forensic science initiatives came from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and NIST. In February 2013, these two agencies announced the establishment of the National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS) as part of a new initiative to strengthen and enhance the practice of forensic science, strikingly similar to the proposed structure under Senator Leahy’s draft legislation (S. 132). The NCFS will comprise “approximately 30 members” from forensic science, “including Federal, State, and Local forensic science service providers; research scientists and academicians; Federal, State, Local prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges; law enforcement; and other relevant stakeholders [to develop policy recommendations for the Attorney General].”2 Membership selection for the NCFS was achieved by a formal application process, and member selection is currently pending.

It is expected that the NCFS, via DOJ, will be responsible for developing national guidance and framework coordination for all forensic science disciplines. It is also expected that the NCFS, via NIST, will host and administer “discipline-specific guidance groups”3 that will assist in developing guidelines. The proposed structure of these groups likely will be similar to the already existing scientific and technical working groups in the forensic community.

What Law Enforcement Executives Should Expect and Do Next

First and foremost, forensic operations and agencies need to prepare their staff for the issues raised in the NAS report and how these will influence and drive questions from stakeholders, especially from attorneys in the courtroom. Do written protocols for evidence handling and analysis exist? Are the methods used by forensic personnel properly validated? Does the forensic operation have a robust quality program? Problems and challenges have appeared in news articles about the St. Paul Police crime lab.4 Is your agency ready to defend its forensic operations?

Second, the forensic science community will experience an intense focus on the science behind what they do. There has been a great deal of recent debate addressing some of the long-standing disciplines of forensic science—in particular fingerprints, firearms, and questioned documents. This focus will continue to expand and get more vigorous with time. Attorneys are learning about the science. Some are challenging whether or not fingerprint comparisons are a science and a valid method for identification.

The Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science
Center, Los Angeles, California
Finally, the forensic operations regardless of size need to work toward standardization, laboratory accreditation, and individual examiner certification. For example, most small- and medium-sized forensic service providers are about 10 years behind the full-service crime lab community with accreditation. Although it will take some work, commitment, and resources, forensic service providers can catch up quickly. Accreditation help is available through labs that have been through the process or from accrediting agencies. A majority of the work in accreditation preparation is creating standardized written protocols, following them, and then auditing them.

The national forensic science initiatives are about improving the forensic sciences in the United States. The drive is not necessarily about changing or challenging what forensic service providers do, but it might be if an agency is not prepared. ♦

For more information, please contact Director Gialamas at (323) 260-8502 or


1“Charter of the Subcommittee on Forensic Science,” Committee on Science, National Science and Technology Council, (accessed May 15, 2013).
2U.S. Department of Justice, Notice of Establishment of the National Commission on Forensic Science and Solicitation of Applications for Commission Membership, 78 Fed. Reg.12355 (February 19, 2013), (accessed July 15, 2013).
3Elana Tyrangiel, speech at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Annual Meeting (Washington, D.C., February 21, 2013), (accessed July 15, 2013).
4See for example, Chao Xiong, “Reviews Fault St. Paul Crime Lab in Many Areas,” St Paul Star Tribune, February 14, 2013, (accessed July 15, 2013).

Dean Gialamas is the director of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Scientific Services Bureau, an ASCLD/LAB-International / ISO 17025-accredited laboratory that employs more than 300 technical and support personnel, serves a population of more than 6 million residents and more than 150 agencies, and operates out of eight laboratory facilities within Los Angeles County. He holds dual majors in Chemistry and Biology from the University of California–Irvine and a master’s degree in Criminalistics from California State–Los Angeles. He is professionally certified in forensic science by the American Board of Criminalistics and is a proud graduate of the West Point Leadership and Command Program.

Please cite as:

Dean M. Gialamas, "The Changing Face of Forensic Science: What Police Chiefs Need to Know about National Forensic Science Initiatives, The Police Chief 80 (September 2013): 26–29.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 9, September 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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