Posts Tagged ‘Department of Justice’

Following up on my last post, in which I asked why there were still no national standards for forensic science five years after the National Academy of Sciences’2009 report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, and with scandal after scandal in U.S. crime labs all over the country, there may be light on the horizon.  On January 10, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)  and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the formation of the National Commission on Forensic Science.

According to the announcement issued by DOJ and NIST:

Members of the commission will work to improve the practice of forensic science by developing guidance concerning the intersections between forensic science and the criminal justice system. The commission also will work to develop policy recommendations for the U.S. Attorney General, including uniform codes for professional responsibility and requirements for formal training and certification.

John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that the Commission “will help ensure that the forensic sciences are supported by the most rigorous standards available—a foundational requirement in a nation built on the credo of ‘justice for all.’ ”

The formation of the Commission could be the a significant milestone in the march toward the use of real science and defensible national standards in forensic labs.  But it may be limited in what it can achieve just by its creation and structure: it is not a body created by Congress with power to come up with and implement standards or to regulate anything.  Rather it is a federal advisory committee, formed under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972.  (A quick primer on the Act is here.)   It investigates and debate designated topics, and then reports its recommendations to the relevant federal department(s) that formed it (in this case, the DOJ and NIST).  Those agencies could choose to embrace and follow, or could choose to reject, some, all, or none of the Commission’s suggestions.

Still, this is a hopeful sign that we might be heading in the right direction.  At the very least, we will see a national conversation between the very large number of Committee members; they come from a variety of backgrounds in government, science, the legal system, and elsewhere.  See the list of more than thirty Commission members at the bottom of this announcement.

I hope readers will weigh in on the following question: realistically, what will come from the Committee?  Will the government adopt these recommendations?  Will the recommendations include national standards to regulate forensic testing, assure quality control, and the like? In the end, will the work that you foresee coming from the Commission improve the U.S.’s largely unregulated system?


An update on my May 22  post on the NYPD stop and frisk case: the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a “statement of interest” in the case to say that if the judge rules against the NYPD, the preferred remedy would be an independent monitor to implement changes and make sure they take root.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Mayor Michael Bloomberg reacted by saying that appointing an independent monitor for the NYPD  would be a “terrible idea.”

Independent monitors are common in cases in which the federal government has sued police departments to impose needed reforms to stop patterns or practices of constitutional rights violations in those departments.  For example, police departments in Seattle, Detroit, and East Haven, Connecticut currently have federal monitors; federal monitors have been used in now-completed cases in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and other cities.   Samuel Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, explained in the Wall Street Journal article that “monitoring the department would entail a team of people who would conduct audits of reports officers must file for every stop…The team would follow up by interviewing officers and their supervisors about the stops and filing reports to the judge.”

The DOJ Statement of Interest is not binding on the judge; in fact, the DOJ is not a party in the lawsuit.  It was simply used by the DOJ to say that IF the judge found the NYPD to have violated the Constitution (she has made no finding yet), the proper remedy for the violation should include an independent monitor.

Four years after the National Academy of Science’s 2009 report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward called for basic changes in the forensic sciences, U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology have announced they will create a national commission on forensic science.  The commission will have 30 members — forensic science practitioners, researchers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges — who will develop policy recommendations for the Attorney General.  According to the Department of Justice announcement:

The commission will have responsibility for developing guidance concerning the intersections between forensic science and the courtroom and developing policy recommendations, including uniform codes for professional responsibility and requirements for training and certification.  The new initiative provides a framework for coordination across forensic disciplines under federal leadership, with state and local participation. The Department of Justice, through its involvement in the commission, will take an active role in developing policy recommendations and coordinating implementation.

For many who looked for action in the wake of the National Academy of Science’s 2009 report and saw very little, the creation of the commission will comes as a welcome step forward.   The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA), which took a fairly negative view of the 2009 report and its recommendations, is now reacting with a wait and see attitude.  The NDAA has not yet put out a formal statement in reaction to the announcement of the commission; according to Scott Burns, the Executive Director of the NDAA, the organization will do that once it gets the details on the commission, especially its composition.  So far, Burns told me, the NDAA is  “encouraged” by the fact that prosecutors will be part of the commission, though he stresses that he hopes to see more state and local prosecutors than federal ones.  Burns said that if the commission begins with the attitude that “the system is broken” and that its basics — fingerprints, tool marks, and the like — must be fixed, the NDAA will not look on it favorably.  On the other hand, if the commission starts with the attitude that “we can improve”  the system but that it basically functions well, that would be welcome.

I will write further on this as the story develops.


Widely-circulating reports over the last few days indicate that the U.S Department of Justice has settled another police reform case, this one with the Seattle Police Department.  Details are sketchy, with much of the coverage focusing on how the mayor resisted an earlier proposed settlement as too onerous and expensive.  That’s the thrust of today’s article in the Seattle Times on the settlement.

When we finally do see the agreement, it will interesting to see whether it requires changes to how basic types of evidence — eyewitness identification, suspect interrogation, and forensics — are handled.  In last week’s posts on the subject, here and here, I reported that the DOJ/New Orleans Police Department consent decree expressly addressed both photographic eyewitness identification, and the recording of suspect interrogations.  The main issues in Seattle was the use of force and how that might be reformed, tracked, and supervised, so this agreement may not address those concerns with evidence.    When I get a look at the settlement document, I’ll report here whether those issues are included.

Whether the Seattle agreement hits those issues or not, it is refreshing to see the Department of Justice take them on in the New Orleans case.  It will be important to watch whether that happens in other consent decrees in the future.

Update, 8/1: The documents now available on the Seattle settlement indicate that it did not touch upon issues involving eyewitness identification, interrogation, or forensics.  The focus was on the use of force.

In yesterday’s post on the DOJ/New Orleans PD consent decree, I pointed out that early news reports said that the decree required a science-based best practice: audio and video recording of suspect interrogations.  Now that we can read the full consent decree itself, we can see that it requires science-based methods of conducting photo lineups with eyewitnesses, too.

Paragraphs 171 through 173 of the decree require three of the most important changes that scientists have long recommended: blind line ups, in which the administrator of the lineup does not know which of the pictures shown is the actual suspect; telling the witness that the perpetrator may or may not be present; and the proper selection of “filler” photographs.  All of these procedures are fundamental to avoiding cognitive biases, and with them erroneous identifications.

We also see in paragraph 164 of the decree that the requirement to record interrogations applies only to suspects in homicides and sexual assaults, but that the recording must include the entire questioning session between suspect and police.  Police will not be allowed to do an unrecorded “pre-interview,” which is actually an interrogation that gets the suspect to admit guilt, and then a recorded “confession” that does not show how the confession was obtained.

The consent decree ranges across a host of other subjects.  But it is truly good to see the Department of Justice put its considerable weight into moving police departments toward the best that science has to offer.  This won’t cut through law enforcement’s resistance to science all by itself, but it will help.