From a story in the Washington Post, we learn that police and prosecutors in Washington, D.C. oppose staffing the District’s new independent forensic laboratory with trained professionals, and instead want to keep the sworn police officers who now serve as forensic staff in those jobs. T1he reasons for this go back to a fundamental question: why does law enforcement resist science?
As the article explains, there are of course issues of jobs and efficiency. The District government wants the officers now staffing the lab out on the street, fighting crime, and says that using civilians trained in forensic disciplines will be less expensive. The police union denies that the change will result in savings, and also says that the changes being made renege on an earlier agreement to preserve the lab jobs for sworn officers.
But the real argument here is over who whether those who do the job of forensic analysis will or will not be part of the police department. The 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States”, pointed out that forensic labs needed to be independent of the police departments and prosecutor’s offices that often “owned” the labs in the past. They also needed professional staff who would not share the “we’re part of the law enforcement team” ethos. All of this is essential to avoiding cognitive biases in laboratory procedures, communication, and protocol.
That’s what makes the law enforcement response interesting: they want to retain the law enforcement personnel and connection in order to have people on their side who can get the job done as they need it. According to the Post, “officers in the District’s forensics division said their experience is invaluable, and they think their training and time as a sworn officer helps them understand investigations” — a coded way of saying that sworn officers in the lab will “get it,” but civilian analysts in an independent lab won’t.
The District appears to have done the right thing for the right reasons: the government there: “authorized the lab and removed administrative authority from police and prosecutors, in part to try and avoid problems involving faulty and contaminated test results that have beset other labs across the country.” They deserve support for this, and should not be shoved back toward the “bad old days” in forensic labs.