Forensic science. The phrase often brings to mind the labs filled with futuristic technology featured on popular television shows like CSI, Bones, NCIS, and other crime dramas, where every fingerprint has a match, every DNA sample is in the database, every smartphone is crackable, and every piece of trace evidence is a perfect piece of the puzzle.
Naturally, real-life forensics isn’t quite like that. However, law enforcement agencies, much like those fictional departments, do have hard-working forensics experts striving to use forensic science to solve crimes, bolster cases, and ensure the correct people are brought to justice.
These forensic scientists across the world cover an extremely wide realm of topics and evidence types—including biometric data such as fingerprints, DNA, and facial recognition; crime scene evidence such as tool marks, footwear impressions, and ballistic evidence; and emerging realms such as digital evidence. There are specialists in fields beyond these better-known areas as well, including forensic psychology, forensic anthropology, and veterinary forensics, to name a few.
Within this complex, multifaceted realm of science is the potential to increase case closure rates, improve victim services, decrease wrongful conviction rates, and foster public safety—goals we all share for our agencies and the communities we serve. However, to effectively deploy forensic science in the pursuit of justice and safety, police chiefs, detectives, and line officers need to know what tools and solutions are available, what forensic science capabilities exist, and what gaps are present, which is why this issue of Police Chief covers multiple aspects of this important topic.
The Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) has been pivotal to solving cases. Substantial delays that were once a normal part of the fingerprint identification process are now a thing of the past. AFIS provides automated fingerprint search capabilities, latent searching capability, electronic image storage, and the electronic exchange of fingerprints and responses. Once an agency submits fingerprints electronically, they will receive a response back quickly, which aids in solving crimes and preventing further criminal acts.
Rapid DNA can allow law enforcement to either include or exclude an arrestee as a potential suspect within two hours. This not only aids in the timely prosecution of perpetrators, but also helps to exclude innocent individuals. DNA collection upon arrest is permitted in 31 U.S. states, the U.S. federal government, and Puerto Rico, with 16 states and the federal government permitting analysis at the time of collection, as well. As the Rapid DNA initiative is expanded into booking stations, the number of DNA samples in CODIS will grow exponentially, increasing law enforcement’s ability to link serial offenders to other crimes they have committed.
Veterinary forensics can be key to identifying animal cruelty cases, which are now a separate category in NIBRS. Having access to experts who can differentiate between animal cruelty and nonviolent animal deaths is important for law enforcement, as individuals who commit animal cruelty often also commit interpersonal violence, including mass shootings, domestic violence, and serial killings.
Digital Evidence is becoming even more critically important to our investigations each day, with individuals using smartphones and other digital devices as their primary forms of communication and storage. Our agencies are continually confronted by the need for exceptional access to encrypted data, advanced tools, and forensic capabilities, as well as resources to address the increased expense resulting from barriers to digital evidence access. The speed of change for technology and the use of encryption, the culture of digital technology use, pervasive privacy concerns, and the increasing importance of digital evidence to public safety must all be understood, balanced, and planned for, and the IACP, the National Institute of Justice, and the FBI are working to provide the necessary knowledge base and resources law enforcement needs.
Regardless of the type of forensic science being performed, for the techniques and technologies to work (and for the results to be used in court), evidence must be collected from crime scenes and victims in a precise manner that prevents contamination or erroneous documentation. Many agencies operate with a full staff of less than 50 individuals, meaning that those who collect crime scene evidence for processing are officers, not crime scene specialists. Therefore, it is critical that we train our officers in evidence collection, evidence control, and crime scene processing. Several resources exist for agencies seeking to better train their officers:
• IACP model policies and discussion papers on evidence control and other investigative procedures
• National Institute of Justice’s Crime Scene Guides for law enforcement and first responders, covering topics such as death scenes, fire and arson scenes, bomb and explosion scenes, and electronic crime scenes
• Crime Scene Investigation: A Guide for Law Enforcement, a step-by-step guide for crime scene investigations developed by the National Forensic Science Technology Center and available for free online
Understanding what forensic science can contribute to law enforcement and how the two fields intersect allows us to increase our agencies’ capabilities and improve our service to our communities. ♦
Please cite as
Louis M. Dekmar, “Solving Crimes in the Lab: Understanding the Role of Forensic Science in Policing,” President’s Message, The Police Chief (February 2018): 6.