I’ve written a number of times (here and here an here, for example) about the problems with forensic science laboratories in this country.  Just in the last few months, we’ve seen scandals hit labs in Massachusetts, St. Paul, Minnesota, and in Mississippi.  It seems that the parade might never end.

But today, news emerged that indicates that, just maybe, forensic reform might be on the national agenda.

The new Congress will, of course, be preoccupied with budget and fiscal matters, and also with the President’s efforts on gun control and an expected push for immigration reform.  But Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has announced that he intends to put forensic reform onto the long list of issues he will examine.  According to The BLT (the Blog of the Legal Times, which covers law and government in Washington), Leahy’s committee will be working on an ambitious agenda: immigration, national security and civil liberties issues (including the use of drones in both foreign and domestic contexts), and gun control policy, but that isn’t all.  “The committee will also focus on promoting national standards and oversight for forensic labs and practitioners,” BLT says.

This is a welcome development.  People can disagree about whether we should have national standards (I think yes) or a “national institute of forensic science,” (again, I say yes) as proposed in the National Academy of Sciences’ 2009 report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.  But it’s hard to argue that we should not hold the current situation up to the light for some long-overdue scrutiny and discussion of  higher standards and better oversight.  With the never-ending parade of state and local scandals in crime labs, a little federal look-see could actually help.

Comments
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  2. Larry Turso says:

    Mr. Harris,

    If there’s any link in the judicial chain that should be held to scrutiny & tough oversight, it’s our forensic lab, and to a greater extent the entire investigative process. Certainly the enforcement of national standards will pressure lab directors to provide the best quality products to the field. However, like Mr. Woodward, I am not convinced utilizing the federal government to enforce these standards is the answer.

    My only experience with a forensic lab is the U.S. Army Crime Lab (USACIL) at Ft. Gillem, GA, which, despite all of the good it has delivered over the years, has had its own share of scandals; one as recently as 2008. I believe USACIL obtains accreditation through the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board on a recurring 5-year basis. I have used this lab on hundreds of occasions, and each time they have provided world-class results under tough standards and incredible backlogs.

    Of course, one of the dangers of failing a compliance inspection – a condition that would most certainly accompany the implementation of National Standards, would be the inevitable revocation or suspension of accreditation and closure of a lab until shortfalls or failures are corrected. This is where I see government oversight negatively impacting a judicial system that is already slow-moving due to undermanned police departments and overburdened legal personnel. This is not to suggest examinations be conducted swiftly of course.

    Anyone who has spent time on a compliance & inspection team will tell you that enforcing standards (local or otherwise) does not ensure there won’t be failures, shortfalls and scandals, such is the nature of human beings; only that they’ll now be subject to scrutiny by the media and external agencies looking to undermine an already fragile support system.

    CW4(R) Larry Turso
    U.S. Army CID
    Columbus, GA

  3. john6805 says:

    Having been in law enforcement for over 25 yrs and a Forensic Crime Lab director for 3 yrs, there is no need for federal oversight. There are oversight protections in place, state-by-state, to ensure the integrity of the analysts and processes. “Peer review” for every type of analysis is in place to ensure compliance with established industry procedures. What is in place will work and safeguard against these “scandals” if the individuals responsible for performing these tasks are doing their job properly. But herein lies the problem. Whenever humans are involved (certain individuals), shirking of duties will occur. Laziness sets in. Greed. Recognition (one way or the other). Temptation strikes. And believe it or not, this doesn’t happen just to forensic analysts! Let’s see, have we witnessed police agencies be rocked by scandals? How about the International Olympic Committee – any scandals ever happen there? My point is this. Put in place all the safeguards you want and until you remove the human factor, individuals are going to find a way to circumvent the system. Then it just becomes “when” and not “if” they are caught. Why do you think scandals occur? Because the system eventually works!

    • Hi John6805 — Thanks for your comments. I agree that when human beings are involved, we can and do face many of the common human shortcoming, like laziness, greed, pride. And you are quite right that these are not confined to forensic analysts — not by a long short. Every profession or calling has some people like that. The impact on others is greater when the job bears directly on public safety and justice, I think, but your point still stands. Where I would disagree with you is your statement that oversight protections are already in place, state-by-state, to ensure integrity of both analysts and process. This is true in some places, but definitely not in all, and not in enough of them. What I would want from the federal government in this context is not micromanagement, but minimum standards on those matter that ensure integrity of analysts and processes: required proficiency testing; periodic audits and quality assurance processes; requirements that basic “best practices” be followed re: processes for avoiding contamination, bias, etc. And I would want and expect that leaders of the forensic community, and not politicians, would have the major role in figuring out what those minimum standards would be. As things stand, we simply have too many labs in which problems can be caught and addressed with some very basic procedures, but those are now considered optional.

      Thanks for your very thoughtful comment.
      David Harris, “Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science.”

  4. Luke Woodward says:

    Mr. Harris:

    I see you are concerned about this matter. Notwithstanding, I do not support the notion of running to the “Leaders” in Washington as the most appropriate place to seek assistance. They would certainly screw it up, as the federal government is proven notorious and inept at managing many investigative type programs. Just think of the bureaucracy that would ensue at the hands of a federal lab. Can you say the “FIB Lab” oops sorry that should be the “FBI Lab,” I knew you could. I remember the scandal 15 or more years ago involving that so called fantastic lab. They are still trying to regain the lost creditability over there. That is not to say we may need some review of this problem. Now, I spent over 30 years in law enforcement at the local, state and 28 of those years within the federal government so I think I can speak with some experience on this and say that this is appropriately a problem for local jurisdictions like it or not that’s just how it is. That is where the pressure should be applied and decisions made, down in the trenches where most of the investigative work is done either successfully or otherwise.

    During my career, I had the distinct privilege to have had access to the INS Forensic Document Lab which was until 2003 operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. People like Gideon Epstein Chief, of the lab were always there whenever I needed analysis or forensic examination of usually documentary evidence. I called them many times to assist in several successful fraud cases that we prosecuted. You may have heard of the movie “The Music Box”, which is loosely based on the life Nazi John Demjanjuk, who falsified documents in order immigrate to the United States to escape prosecution. The forensic document lab discussed and used as a model in that movie was the INS Forensic Document Lab. But, I digress, let us look locally and demand that local politicians accept the responsibility for this matter and further demand that they fix the problem on a case by case basis. This is not a one size fits all kind of problem. Some jurisdictions have fairly well established and operated labs structures while others are labs in name only.

    Again, lets apply the pressure where it should be applied and leave the resolution to the local authority where it actually belongs. So, before we run to Washington to “Solve” this problem, let’s look locally and find the willingness and resources to do it right on the level where most of the need actually exist.

    Just in case you were wondering, well who does this guy think he is, well I was a sworn officer over 30 years and a criminal investigator for more than 24 of those years. I saw a lot of sloppiness and ineffective application of resources in this arena. I just cannot support giving the already bloated and self-serving giant federal government more authority and room to “poke us” in the investigative eye, if you will. More authority, means more personnel who will all require more pay, more benefits, more office space, more vehicles more pencils etc. So, if we need to spend resources on this, then let’s levy, collect and spend them locally without involving a federal government middle man, shall we?

    Respectful Regards,

    Luke D. Woodward, Senior Special Agent

    DHS, Homeland Security Investigations (Retired)

    San Antonio, Texas

    • Hello Special Agent Woodward — I really appreciate your comment, and I am glad to have someone with so much experience and knowledge participating in this discussion.

      I understand your skepticism about having the federal government (or worse, members of Congress) dictate to you how to solve these problems we’ve seen in labs. As I said to John6805, we don’t need micromanagement. But where I would disagree is that we are always better off leaving solutions to these problems to folks on the local level. There are many good labs, lab directors, and analysts out there. They do good work. But there are also many labs in which these things are not true, and those that lead them — whether they are local lab directors, politicians, or law enforcement leaders — seem to have little inclination or incentive to do anything to ensure that lab work is done in ways that ensure integrity for both analysts and processes. That’s why I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the federal government to set minimum standards in this area. This is something we do with many aspects of modern life — food safety, drug purity, transportation safety, etc. It’s hard for civilians (those not part of the process) to see a pretty steady stream of these problems erupting, all over the country, affecting many people and cases, and to wonder why aren’t there minimum proficiency or audit requirements that would have caught, for example, that analyst in Massachusetts who turned in fraudulent work for eight (?) years, or Fred Zain in W.Va., or …. The picture that these events consistently occurring paints for an outsider to the “industry” is that some basic regs or policing or standards are necessary, because too many times, local agencies don’t do it themselves. So no, I don’t want more federal bureaucracy. But if states and localities can’t take care of this in some basic ways, some oversight has to happen.

      I’m really glad to have your comments here, and I hope for more.

      David Harris, “Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science”

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