D.C.'s top forensic scientist has been transferred out of the police department amid an increasingly bitter conflict for control of the city's crime laboratory.William Vosburgh was brought in amid much fanfare to assist construction of a long-delayed, $140 million crime laboratory and to build a top-flight forensic science program to match it. But after months of conflict with police department brass, he's being "detailed" to the mayor's office, sources with intimate knowledge of the controversy told The Examiner.At the heart of the matter is whether the crime lab will be independent or under the authority of the police department. Vosburgh has argued internally that the lab has to be independent to prevent police from influencing forensic tests; his boss, Assistant Chief Peter Newsham, wants the lab to report to him. ...The stakes are enormous: Without a working crime lab, the District is sitting on thousands of untested samples from rapes and homicides. There are about 4,000 unsolved homicides on the department's books.But experts say it's not enough to have a crime lab: The city also has to build an effective one. In Houston, officials are still reeling from revelations that its technicians were poorly trained, kept shoddy records and spoiled evidence with leaky roofs and bad habits. Dozens of cases have had to be retested. One prominent criminologist called Houston's criminal justice system "completely dysfunctional."There have been similar scandals in crime labs in Oklahoma City, Montana, Washington state and even at the FBI lab at Quantico -- where the District's samples were being tested until Vosburgh took over and overhauled the District's staff.The National Academy of Sciences recently published a massive study arguing for independent crime labs.
Sunday, December 27, 2009
The coming fight over independent crime labs
There's a behind-the-scenes tussle going on in Washington D.C. between the mayor and the police chief over whether their troubled crime lab will be independent from the police department, reports the Washington Examiner ("Top DNA doctor transferred out of D.C. police amid turmoil," Dec. 27)
Will scientists or cops control forensic testing? That's the question underlying this bureaucratic feud in D.C..
It's a political fight we've not yet witnessed in Texas, but it's likely looming just over the horizon. The matter will probably come to a head first in Houston, where police chief Harold Hurtt just stepped down after the new mayor said she would fire him during the campaign, in part over crime lab issues. Potentially, Mayor Annise Parker could avoid this particular battle by making sure the new police chief is on board with removing Houston's crime lab from the police department altogether and making it independent - possibly collaborating with other jurisdictions to create a long-discussed regional crime lab. Will she take that next, big step? Quien sabe? Time will tell. It's definitely what's needed.
Similarly, we've not yet seen a serious push to disentangle state crime labs from the Texas Department of Public Safety, which has not been immune from its own scandals, but there aren't many sound arguments besides cost and inertia for leaving crime labs in law enforcement bureaucracies that subject them to investigators' biases and demands.