Thursday, January 29, 2015

Whistleblower lab worker punished for Houston officer's mistake

Following up on the story of errors at the Houston crime lab that led to dismissal of felony DWI charges, Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg concluded an article this week (Jan. 28) summarizing the case's significance:
in the grand scheme of things, these lapses aren't earth-shattering. Nobody's life was dangling in the balance on death row. And if this episode had occurred a few years earlier, we might never have heard about it.

But it just so happened that these mistakes happened right before a newly created local government corporation, called the Houston Forensic Science Center, took over crime lab operations from HPD. City leaders created the corporation in a bid to rebuild public trust in a lab that had been mired in scandal, suspended temporarily in 2002 and overwhelmed by a decades-old backlog of untested rape kits.

The new leaders promised transparency. They thoroughly investigated the mistakes made by the second lab analyst who handled the sample. And even before they arrived, she had been taken off casework and assigned to intensive retraining.

The new leaders, led by Scott Hochberg, who chairs the city forensics board, implemented a list of new policies and procedures to keep such mistakes from happening again and to deal with them more transparently when they do happen. Changes include conducting "root cause" investigations for errors.

The episode was also reviewed thoroughly by the city's inspector general, and then it underwent months of review by the state's forensic science commission, which put together another report. Both of them read at times like a cross between "CSI" and "Who's on First."

But at least there was accountability and some attempt at transparency.

In contrast, let's look at what has been done at HPD to address the situation.
As best as I can tell, nothing.

A department spokesman said he could find "no record of any investigation ever conducted of mislabeling of evidence" after Quezada's October 2013 mistake.

It appears the officer was allowed to continue with his nonchalant handling of evidence, until he ran into more trouble - which rose, it seems, to a whole other level.

According to the HPD spokesman, Quezada "is currently relieved of duty pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation into criminal and conduct allegations."

We don't know what kind of allegations. We don't know what kind of crime, what kind of conduct because the HPD won't say, as is their custom.
For those interested in more detail, see the final FSC report as well as the local OIG report on the topic. I've still not had a chance to read those documents in full myself, but reading between the lines in the FSC report, one might take this analysis one step further, considering it from the perspective of front-line crime-lab workers. Not only was no one at HPD held accountable, the gal who identified the problem was taken off case work and sent to retraining for three months, even though her supervisor, who did not receive retaining, "reviewed and approved" all her work. In a workplace context, being taken off case work amounts to a punishment, or at least a remedial action, while there was no retraining or disciplinary action for the officer whose error caused the problem or the supervisor who failed to catch it.

That outcome doesn't particularly provide other crime lab employees with a big incentive to come forward when they find a problem. They may rightly think they'll be blamed and punished while their supervisors and any officers involved will face no consequence. Or, as the FSC report put it, "When the laboratory issues a root cause analysis that inequitably attributes responsibility to one analyst while downplaying management's contribution to the same incident, the resulting environment may be one in which analysts are hesitant to report mistakes. This dynamic can have a chilling effect on laboratory self-disclosure, which contradicts fundamental concepts in both the established accreditation standards" and under Texas law.

Adversity does not generally shape character so much as it reveals it. The young lab worker revealed hers by owning up to her mistake as soon as she identified it. Lab managers revealed theirs by throwing her under the bus.


Anonymous said...

If the lab worker "owned up to her mistake", meaning she was not doing something correctly, that sounds like fair grounds to send her to get more training. If she denied such mistakes and was not given reasonable due process, then there would be a bigger problem. Given the officer is still under some form of investigation, I'm not sure how fair it would be to send him to additional training pending the outcome unless he admitted to similar mistakes. Supervisors and managers always seem to get a better deal though, no matter if in the private or public sector, but I look forward to hearing more as details come in.

Anonymous said...

Phases of a project:
I Enthusiasm
II Panic
III Search for the guilty
IV Punishment of the Innocent
V Praise and honor for non-participants

DEWEY said...

Motto of ALL police departments: "to protect and serve each other".

Anonymous said...

Dewey, I think that motto applies to all large organizations.