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)
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.
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.


Anonymous said...

So how will the independent labs work, Grits? Who will they be accoutable to? Who will make the call as to what evidence gets tested and how quickly? Will they operate on a regional basis and test evidence for multiple law enforcement agencies? Who will grade their homework? How will they be funded? If they remain funded with tax dollars, will they not still, in effect, be an arm of government subject to the same concerns about autonomy? The theory behind independent labs sounds fine, just wondering how, in practice, they will work.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, 1:56, for starters you might look at the book-length recommendations of the National Academies of Sciences in support of independent crime labs. They address many of those questions in more detail than I have the time or ability to do here.

But let's also ask those questions, too, about the current regime:

"Who will they be accoutable to?"

In Houston, clearly nobody is accountable to anybody. After all this time we discover the fingerprint unit is still a shambles. Also, DPS has seen not consequences for crime lab errors that sent innocent people to prison. Where is the accountability currently? Only with police administrators, whose main agenda is not the integrity of science.

"Who will make the call as to what evidence gets tested and how quickly?"

This question will always be resource driven, but the current folks have long lag times for testing everything from DNA to drugs. Worst case, that doesn't change. OTOH, to the extent they were underfunded because departments championed money for patrol instead of lab techs, making them independent could make them a higher funding priority.

"Will they operate on a regional basis and test evidence for multiple law enforcement agencies?"

That's what's been suggested in Houston and it's also the model DPS crime labs operate on, if they were ever made independent.

"Who will grade their homework?"

Right now nobody's grading anybody's homework except the Forensic Science Commission, and we've seen the recent political intervention by the DA appointed to chair it to keep them from doing their job. The goal of independence is to separate science from law enforcement - creating uber-oversight is a separate question.

"How will they be funded? If they remain funded with tax dollars, will they not still, in effect, be an arm of government subject to the same concerns about autonomy?"

Of course they'll be funded by taxes, but the autonomy issues you mention aren't remotely the same as being in the chain of command in the police department. Even if their autonomy is a concern, the status quo is much worse.

Other than that, read the NAS report. They go into much more detail than I could do justice to here. The concerns you've raised as far as I can tell are already huge problems with the status quo - at worst, they cut equally both ways and none of them are arguments per se against independence.

Harrisburg DUI Lawyer said...

I cannot believe that this is even debatable. While independence is necessary for any laboratory to insure against bias, it is just a start. Without meaningful double bind unannounced proficiency-based testing of every technician conducted by yet another independent certified laboratory auditors, then it means nothing. We also need the technicians to be true credentialed scientists having graduated from brick and mortar post-secondary institutions employing the scientific method in the discipline that they are formally trained in. Finally, to make it have any sort of scientific meaning, the methods must be robust and internally and externally validated.

-Justin J. McShane, Esquire, Harrisburg DUI Lawyer

Anonymous said...

Grits, have you read the entire NAS report? Be honest, for a change.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

In fact, 8:32, yes. When it came out I was Policy Director for the Innocence Project of Texas and it was part of my job. I ordered a copy pre-publication and read it as soon as it came out.

Having answered your question, please point to an example where you believe I've been dishonest. And if you're going to make such accusations, grow some cojones and put your name on them.

Hook Em Horns said...

Houston has NO BUSINESS operating a crime lab. Period. And Grits, asking anonymous cowards to post behind there name, well, it sounds nice but it will never happen. A coward is a coward!

FairPlay said...

From what I have seen about the problems with other crime labs is the backlog of cases. To me this seems like the greatest problem maker. This causes lab workers to take short cuts to keep up with the workload. It is scary to think of some of the possible outcomes when this happends.

Anonymous said...

Fair Play, I disagree. Work is work and calibration of equipment is all part of the job. People will cut corners because they can get away with it or/and is part of the culture. Grits (2:42 pm, 12-27) is correct when he states "nobody is accountable to anybody" and there are no "consequences". Therein seems to be the problem. Higher up the ladder.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Fair Play and anon 8:41, I'd say you're both right. The problems at crime labs represent a confluence of related but independent issues: Lack of accountability, excessive backlogs, understaffing, inadequate training and procedures, and the unscientific nature of many forensic disciplines all have combined to create a perfect storm on the forensics front.

Independence is only a partial solution, but at the end of the day a necessary one.

Anonymous said...

Independence does not guarantee competence. It does, however, grow the beaurocracy, which fits in nicely with liberalness. Spend more money. Create more government.

TDCJ EX said...

Fairplay, that's probably how these type of problems start cutting a corner here and there and getting away with it. So they learn that as long as they help get convictions nothing will happen to them. So, when there is added pressure from cops and prosecutors as well as the media and some special interest groups. They might work harder towards the desired outcome. The accused being convicted. And nothing happens , if say it's found out that a lab worker didn't do something that will might exclude the accused. Maybe they "cooked the books " a little to help secure a conviction. Eventually, it becomes routine. Some on the other hand turn into the Fred Zians' Joyce Gilchrists', Michael West's Stven Hayens' and we can't forget Keith Pickett , and his dogs of Grits fame

Googling those guys return some scary results.

You could add this to the perfect storm mix.
When the "forensic scientist/expert" is rewarded for "solving the case and securing a conviction" where the accused would otherwise be acquitted, often for something they did not do. The first place. They become "the hero's" in high profile cases, the " forensic scientist/ expert" becomes almost untouchable and uncomfortable for anything. Being the "hero" who "saved the community from a monster" would encourage forensic misconduct , and fraud.

If a forensic lab is independent, yet dependent upon government funding. Is it really independent? It's hard to believe that a lab, which did not go along with the prosecutions theory, would receive adequate funding. I can already hear the " tough on crime types", cops , prosecutors and their shills in the media demanding their heads on a platter and pressuring elected officials to cut funding or eliminate the independent lab for being "soft on crime and coddling criminals. " .

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:58, what in your opinion would restore "competence"? Do you have any constructive suggestion or only naysaying criticism?

And aren't police "government" too? How is it "more government"? It seems like the same amount, just structured to avoid conflicting roles and duties.