By Stephanie Stoiloff, Senior Police Bureau Commander, Miami-Dade Police Department Forensic Services Bureau, Miami-Dade, Florida
hy do forensic service providers need a quality assurance program? What is a quality assurance program? If an agency does not have a crime laboratory, why worry about it?
First and foremost, law enforcement executives must work collaboratively with their forensic service operations. Without support at the executive level, laboratory services, instead of flourishing, can quickly become a liability. The recent example of what occurred in St. Paul, Minnesota, is enough to make any police chief stop and take notice.1
The city of St. Paul’s crime laboratory analysts testified that they were performing testing without written standard operating procedures. Two independent reviews of the St. Paul Crime Laboratory found sloppy documentation, faulty techniques, and ignorance of basic scientific principles, among other issues. In fact, the crime lab was never accredited. The lab director was reassigned after these facts unfolded.
The new laboratory director is a trained scientist who now must implement a quality assurance program, including a written quality manual and proper training. Not all areas of the crime laboratory will reopen. How this will affect past convictions is still playing out in the courtroom.
Many problems that arise in public crime laboratories result from a lack of support from upper management. As a law enforcement executive, are you doing everything you can to ensure the best possible forensic services are being provided?
In the same way that the Commission for the Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) accredits law enforcement agencies, forensic services can also be accredited by an external agency. These accrediting bodies are nonprofit agencies that assess forensic service providers to ensure that a quality system, with written policies and protocols, is implemented, followed, and maintained to ensure quality results.
A quality system is a rigorous process that includes a quality manual, administrative manual, procedures manual, safety manual, and the appropriate technical manuals. Accreditation covers all forensic disciplines including fingerprints, firearms and tool marks, drugs, trace evidence, digital evidence, DNA, crime scene, and toxicology. Accreditation is formal recognition by a nonprofit professional association of persons actively involved in forensic science that a forensic service provider meets or exceeds a list of standards to perform specific tests. In addition to these standards, forensic service providers that perform DNA analysis must also adhere to standards in accordance with the provisions of the Federal DNA Identification Act (42 U.S.C. § 14132) or subsequent laws.
Trust, but Verify—Validating Your Procedures
A quality assurance program can be implemented at any time and must be implemented before seeking accreditation. While accreditation is critical and should be the goal of any forensic service provider and its parent agency, it does cost money. Until a funding source can be identified for accreditation, a quality program should be implemented and can be accomplished at minimal cost. For example, common sense should dictate that any time evidence is analyzed a validated, written procedure should be followed. One common misconception is that, when a vendor validates a procedure, the technology is automatically ready to be used by the forensic service provider. A vendor performs developmental validation; that is, the vendor determines the conditions and limitations of a new or novel methodology for use on forensic casework samples. A crime laboratory must then validate the process within its own laboratory. In other words, the procedure must first be evaluated to determine its efficacy and reliability. Until that evaluation, commonly called validation, is complete, the procedure cannot be implemented for forensic casework analysis.
For example, a vendor sells radar guns to law enforcement to be used to determine the rate of speed of a moving vehicle. Law enforcement does not assume that the radar guns work out of the box. The radar guns must be tested and determined to be operating as the manufacturer intended before they are distributed. Officers must then demonstrate proficiency with the radar gun, typically by successful completion of a 40-hour course, in order to enforce traffic laws.
In another example, hospitals routinely use instruments and procedures to analyze body fluid samples taken from patients. Without demonstrated proficiency of the instruments and procedures within a hospital laboratory by its staff, how could we place any value on the results? Life-changing decisions are made based on this information. Similarly, instruments that analyze forensic samples submitted to a crime laboratory, including drugs or DNA from crime scene evidence, must also be validated using documented protocols. Each analyst must demonstrate competency as well as ongoing proficiency with these procedures. The judicial system relies on the information reported by forensic service providers to make decisions that affect lives every day.
The Essential Qualities of a Quality System
The components of a quality system must be implemented prior to accreditation. At its heart, a quality system is about the organizational structure, responsibilities, procedures, processes, and resources for implementing quality management. A quality system should be documented in a written manual that addresses elements such as organization and management, personnel, facilities, evidence control, validation, analytical procedures, equipment calibration and maintenance, reports, review, proficiency testing, corrective action, and safety. Further, as part of accreditation, laboratories must implement, follow, and maintain procedures for document retention to include proficiency tests, corrective action, audits, training records, continuing education, case files, and court testimony monitoring. Few personnel outside the crime laboratory environment realize just how comprehensive the accreditation standards actually are that must be met by forensic service providers.
In addition to the requirements for accreditation set forth by the external accrediting bodies, a DNA unit must also comply with the Quality Assurance Standards for Forensic DNA Testing Laboratories. 2 If these additional standards are not met, the laboratory cannot enter DNA profiles into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and the laboratory would be ineligible to receive federal funding for conducting DNA analysis.
The crime laboratory director, or equivalent management of forensic services, is also required to conduct an annual management review. This review includes, but is not limited to, the following:
- reviewing management support;
- documenting regular communication within the agency and its relevant units;
- reviewing the current analysts and/or examiners within its purview;
- updating analyst and/or examiner information;
- reviewing each analyst and/or examiner’s statement of qualifications;
- reviewing the volume of work and services provided; and
- addressing customer complaints.
This annual review ensures the continuing suitability and effectiveness of the forensic services provided as well as ensures that necessary changes and improvements are implemented.
Forensic Science Is under the Microscope
The forensic science disciplines are currently under more scrutiny than ever before. Members of Congress as well as the courts, independent experts, lawyers, and other members of the criminal justice system are weighing in on how the “business” of forensic science operates and are questioning credentials and procedures. Now is the time for law enforcement executives to become proactive and take a leadership role. Executive managers need to take a greater interest in their forensic personnel as well as their crime laboratories and other forensic operations with regard to funding, staffing, training, and equipment. Quality assurance programs and accreditation are additional tools needed for forensic service providers to ensure that the forensic units are performing their work in conformance with accepted standards.
Upper management must recognize that its input and involvement in forensic science operations are critical to the capability of these operations to provide quality services and, more importantly, to provide services that can withstand being challenged. If quality assurance programs—including accreditation—are not implemented, law enforcement as a whole will be diminished. As forensic science plays an increasingly critical role in the investigation of criminal cases, upper management needs to oversee these forensic operations with a “failure is not an option” mentality to ensure success. ♦
1Mara H. Gottfried and Emily Gurnon, “St. Paul Crime Lab Errors Rampant, Reviews Find,” Twin Cities Pioneer Press, February 14, 2013, www.twincities.com/old/home/ci_22590272/most-st-paul-crime-lab-files-reviewed-had (accessed July 23, 2013).
2Federal Bureau of Investigation, Quality Assurance Standards for Forensic DNA Testing Laboratories, www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/biometric-analysis/codis/qas_testlab.pdf (accessed July 23, 2013).
Please cite as:
Stephanie Stoiloff, "Are You Running a Quality Forensic Science Operation? What Chiefs Need to
Know about QA and Accreditation," The Police Chief 80 (September 2013): 3435.