Tuesday, October 25, 2011

'Missing evidence is among military crime lab's new problems'

Just a reminder that crime-lab woes aren't specific to Houston or to Texas, I was interested to read this report published yesterday by McClatchy Newspapers with the same title as this post on problems at the US military's most important criminal lab. The story opens:
The Army's crime lab, already beleaguered by multiple internal investigations, has something new to explain: missing evidence.

Examiners misplaced evidence in a possible suicide investigation and an assault case. One of the analysts didn't notify his superiors for months that a handwriting sample he was supposed to examine had been missing, a miscue that delayed an investigation into the matter until recently.

Meanwhile, two former senior employees of the lab's high-profile forensics testing in Afghanistan have accused their bosses of firing them in August in retaliation for complaining about mismanagement.

Their lawsuits are the latest in a growing list of employee complaints about the lab. In less than four years, at least seven internal investigations have been launched and eight complaints filed against managers. Employees say the turmoil has distracted them from their mission of analyzing evidence.

The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory, near Atlanta, is the military's most important forensics facility, handling more than 3,000 criminal cases a year.

Now the lab is trying to determine how evidence that was supposed to have been tested was lost.
These aren't the first reports of problems with military crime lab work (see here and here). It's something we're witnessing at all levels of government: Forensic science has been treated for decades as a backwater of applied science tailored to meet the needs of police and biased as an appendage of law enforcement as opposed to an independent scientific arbiter. Now, the National Academies of Science and others have called for moving to a more independent role, but that bucks up against generations of institutional culture, not to mention historic funding relationships vis a vis whose turf you're on in which government jurisdiction. 
The growing pains so far haven't been pretty to watch. Between  the need to upgrade standards of professionalism, greater emphasis on evidence cataloging and retention, and bringing day-to-day practices and court testimony into line with scientific principles, crime labs are in for a rough decade or two before their profession settles down. Hopefully, after change shakes out, they'll find their work more professional, science-based and independent of law enforcement. We need crime labs, but we need them to be better.

That said, the magnitude of missing evidence in the military lab pales in comparison to the worst examples of evidence preservation in Texas, or the lack thereof, especially after police departments in the last few years "discovered" thousands of old, untested rape kits and other biological evidence, which some are now earnestly sorting through and which others are more or less ignoring. So I don't read this news as speaking (particularly) ill of the military crime lab so much as demonstrating that the industry, profession, whatever you want to call it needs to seriously up its game across the board.

No comments: