Houston's crime lab requested the inquiry last month after an anonymous complaint was filed with the Texas Forensic Science Commission regarding the repeated misuse of new lab equipment, leading to tainted blood specimens.Routine review of errors and their causes, then developing mechanisms to prevent them - basically quality control/assurance - is a pivotal but un-sexy aspect to forensic-science reform. When they do their jobs well, QA staff are unsung reform heroes. Every forensic lab will eventually make an error. The big questions arise regarding how forthrightly they respond and whether systems are in place to learn from errors and improve processes as a result. This is boring but essential work. Effective QA requires a certain culture of humility among both lab workers and management, who must acknowledge and learn from errors when becoming defensive may be the more natural reaction. When done correctly, the outside world will never notice. Where effective QA doesn't happen, errors repeat and lab directors find their failings making it into the daily newspaper headlines, which in my observation is the last place most of them want to be.
OIG inspectors said lab staff took too long to report the initial error, which occurred last May, but did not find malfeasance.
"OIG sustains the concern that none of the individuals in the operational chain of command on notice of the error notified the quality director of the May 2015 error, resulting in an improper reporting delay from May to November," Inspector General Robin Curtis wrote. "Because of the totality of the circumstances including the large amount of contemporaneous discussion about the May 2015 error within the operational chain, OIG does not find any malfeasance in the error."
In addition to suggesting policy revisions, the OIG urged the Houston Forensic Science Center to address error review in regularly scheduled staff meetings, retrain staff, ensure contractors understand their quality control responsibilities and self-disclose errors to the state's forensic science commission.
The city's crime lab said in a press release Friday that it began an internal review last October and has since updated its procedures. It also noted that the end result was not affected in any of the three incidents, as analysts were able to test a second, uncontaminated vial of blood.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Quality control essential for crime labs, boring for news reporters
The Houston Forensic Science Center, formerly the Houston PD crime lab, recently changed procedures in light of an inspector general investigation which found insufficient attention to and reporting of evidence contamination errors in the lab, reported the Houston Chronicle (March 25):