Thursday, February 16, 2012

Don't politicize 'independent' Houston crime lab

In an incredibly frustrating development, Houston Mayor Annise Parker has decided to ignore Harris County's offer to partner on a joint, regional crime lab, instead suggesting the city create its own "independent" lab governed by a board of political appointees. Reported Chris Moran at the Houston Chronicle, "Under the mayor's plan, the crime lab would take the form of a local government corporation, a combination of nonprofit and government agency similar to the organizations that run the city's convention business, Parks Board and zoo."

What a waste from duplicated resources if they go this route! A regional lab operated jointly with the county would make far more sense, but the big barrier is the city and county politicians cannot work together on a personal level. Councilman C.O. Bradford, a former Houston police chief, expressed that sentiment: "It would be a sad day if we were to go and renovate some existing facility or acquire a new facility and the county were to continue building a new facility," he told the Chron. "To the extent that we can save public tax dollars and not duplicate equipment and not duplicate a facility, I think we will have scored a perfect score."

But that ship appears to have sailed and Mayor Parker now says a concrete proposal for a separate, independent lab may come before the council as soon as next month. She even suggested that one of the Innocence Project groups have a representative on the crime lab board (in the interest of full disclosure, your correspondent works for the Innocence Project of Texas), but this immediately turned the discussion to suggestions that would dramatically politicize the new entity.
District K Councilman Larry Green called for a place on the board for community groups such as the NAACP or the League of United Latin American Citizens.
District E Councilman Mike Sullivan said suggestions to have defense bar or civil rights representatives on the board "all sound like what I'll term, and I mean this with all due respect, kind of politically correct perspectives and points of view. I think that we need to be sure to have some representation by law enforcement, pro-victims' rights groups, Parents of Murdered Children, groups like that."
This are TERRIBLE suggestions, all the way around. If you're going to create an independent board, scientists, not political appointees, should run the lab, based on the interests of science and not the NAACP, victim's rights groups, etc.. For God's sake don't turn the friggin' crime lab into just another opportunity to feud over the culture wars! I could see designating one slot for a prosecutor and one for the defense bar - so that those with professional interest in the crime lab's functioning would have an avenue to express concerns. But most of the board should be chosen for their scientific chops and independence from the system. It would be a catastrophe if the board packed with a cadre of culture warriors.

To her credit, Mayor Parker said, "I clearly prefer to have our forensics sciences not under the influence of police, prosecution or politics," but designating spots on the board for special interest groups would run contrary to that goal.

19 comments:

Miranda said...

I thought she didn't want to partner with the county at this point because she didn't think the county lab was independent enough. In a previous story, she said that moving the Houston lab from HPD to the county was just trading one government master for another. What are your thoughts on the difference? From what I understand, the city lab's board could only be removed for wrong-doing (to avoid politically motivated removals) and the county lab will be run by someone appointed by the commissioner's court.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good point, Miranda,

FWIW, I've little doubt the governing structure could be negotiated if this were a joint project and the city were putting in money. I don't have a problem with making it an independent board, I just don't want it loaded up with culture warriors - folks from Justice for All, LULAC, etc., bring nothing to the table when it comes to running a scientific lab. That would be more politicized than if it were run by a county employee, who as long as they're outside the chain of law-enforcement command is at least still "independent" from police.

Also, I think it's ridiculous for taxpayers to fund parallel, duplicative projects just because the city and county pols can't work together. Bradford is right on that one.

That said, a serious problem with the "independent lab" suggestion - at the end of the day, somebody from the government must fund and manage it. And setting up an independent board doesn't necessarily solve the problem if you then pack it with folks with no science background and competing political agendas.

Anonymous said...

There are good models in Texas for government forensic labs that are operated independently of police and prosecution, and are also insulated from political pressures.

And it's hard to see what an advisory board would actually do. It certainly shouldn't be evaluating issues of scientific testing and interpretation. That would need to be left to the scientific staff of the laboratory. A board might be useful in running bake sales and in determining what decorations should be put up at Christmas. But beyond that, its value would be minimal.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

My understanding from the story, 4:18, that we're talking about a "governing board" - equivalent to a board of directors - as opposed to an "advisory board," which I agree would be less influential, but I still wouldn't want to see it packed with culture warriors.

Anonymous said...

What is a governing board? Is there another similarly constituted scientific organization that can be pointed to as an example of mhow it would work? I suspect not.

Anonymous said...

What happened to the Sam Houston Crime Lab in The Woodlands? Why are the city and county not using their independent services?

Anonymous said...

Parker wants control..plain and simple...it would be her independent board.
Don't get me started on the idiot councilman Sullivan who filed for county tax assessor even before being sworn to his current cncl term.

Anonymous said...

The city and county currently have an independent lab. It is the Harris County lab. It is as independent as a new lab would be. Plus it is a proven concept.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:33 asks: "What is a governing board?"

Think "board of directors." I don't know if other crime labs are structured with stand-alone boards, but certainly private labs have boards if they're organized as corporations. (Actually, it might be interesting to look and see who's on THEIR boards, now that I think of it.)

@7:54, the Sam Houston crime lab in the Woodlands is still available, but they recently lost federal subsidies and they're now charging higher piece-rates than before. The idea behind the city owning its own lab is that they benefit from economies of scale, employ the scientists themselves, and don't have to pay a per-test fee. I'd assumed he same would be true if Harris and Houston teamed up, though given how little they can agree on, who knows?

The Homeless Cowboy said...

You know One might think that if you want a more honest and correct solution, not swayed by any political or personal pressures from LULAC, NAACP, or whoever else then one might consider an independent crime lab that is not owned by the city or county and does work because it is their job and is not beholdin to any Mayor, council, committe or what ever. Admitted it will cost more but one could say we are looking for the truth here. Fiscal responsibility is of course to be considered, but when dealing with the life and liberty of a person I for one think you want the truth and only the truth. Is that so far from reality these days???

Anonymous said...

The legal system is a fundamental responsibility of government. As has been amply demonstrated by the experiments in privatization of the prison system, outsourcing can create a whole set of new, serious problems.

It is entirely possible to have a lab that is truly independent of law enforcement and prosecution, but is still operated as a unit of government, and is managed by technically qualified scientists. This is done in many jurisdictions.

There will still be criticisms, of course, because the work feeds into the adversarial judicial process, and when people are unhappy with results they will criticise broadly.

But beyond that, the best way to assure correct results in a particular case is to provide the defense with the resources to have its own expert review the findings, and to performe retesting if appropriate.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, I'd like to echo the "Don't" due to your list of reasons and the obvious fall out.

Mayor Parker has her own agenda up her sleeve and has no intentions of listening to anyone but those that she's indebted to (donors & cronies). With that, allow me to throw a wrench into the fan for laughs.

What we need here is;

*One retired judge of record regarding one or more exonerations (DNA & Non-DNA) (no former police).

*One sitting judge under 50 years old (no former police).

*One exonerated victim of the system (VOTS) of each racial make-up (DNA & Non-DNA).

*One crime victim of record regarding exonerated (DNA & Non-DNA) cases.

*One blind person (to include person w/ disabilities).

*One deaf person (to include persons w/ disabilities).

*One Scientist under 30 years old.

*One Scientist under 50 years old.

*One Scientist under 70 years old.

*One Oyster.

Note: no lawyers or prosecutors need apply.
Thanks.

BarkGrowlBite said...

Grits, I must be losing my mind. I find myself in complete agreement with you.

By the way, the Harris County crime lab is not truly independent of the police. It is part of the Medical Examiner's office and that office has had a longstanding love affair with the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff's Department.

S. Edmonds said...

Grits, great minds think alike. I posted a similar sentiment upon hearing the news:

https://twitter.com/#!/TDCAA/status/170249587808940032

The Homeless Cowboy said...

11:06 Be careful, We have enough Oyster related felonies here in Texas, Scott ha a list.

Anonymous said...

Would it be too much to ask that you actually view the presentation (http://houstontx.city.swagit.com/player.php?refid=02152012-3) or read the powerpoint (http://www.houstontx.gov/houstonregionalforensicsciencecenter.pdf) before jumping to conclusions?

Anonymous said...

I for one have viewed/read the powerpoint presentation. It is a nice glitzy presentation, full of nice pictures.

But it fails to address in the fundamental issue - how to establish a laboratory that is independent.

Clearly independence from law enforcement and prosecutors is important. But there are other interested parties (like defense and victims groups) that should also be excluded from the management hierarchy.

If the city wants to do this, do it correctly. Set up a Forensic Science Department within the city government as an independent department with its own budget line. Have the Commissioners appoint a department director who is a scientist with management experience. Have the director manage the department. I.e., do this the same way as the health & human services department is done. Why reinvent the wheel?

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