Monday, February 01, 2021

Beyond "aid" to law enforcement: Crime-lab independence speaks to scientists' differing priorities from cops

The debate over making Austin's crime lab independent from the police department - which the City Council will take up on Thursday - inadvertently helps demonstrate why such change is necessary.

Austin's city manager Spencer Cronk for years has balked at making the crime lab independent. Now that the community has made such "decoupling" a part of "reimagining" the police budget, he has had little choice but to embrace the idea. But he's doing so in the most tepid, pro-cop way imaginable.

Here's the proposed ordinance, which places the crime lab under control of the city manager with no independent oversight board. Check out the vision statement for the new agency, then let's compare it to Harris County's forensic science center.

The Forensic Science Department shall be engaged in the administration of criminal justice in support of state, federal, and local laws, and shall aid law enforcement in the detection, suppression, and prosecution of crime. In carrying out this purpose, the Forensic Science Department shall:

• Conduct objective, accurate and timely analyses of forensic evidence supporting the administration of criminal justice, and perform related services;

• Allocate substantially all of its annual budget to such criminal identification activities; and

• Be responsible for the following services in support of criminal justice: crime  scene investigation; evidence management; firearm/toolmark examination; seized drug analysis; toxicological analysis; latent print examination; DNA analysis; and related forensic services as may be now or later developed for public safety purposes.

 • Establish such policies, management control agreements, and procedures as necessary to carry out its purposes and activities stated above.

By contrast, here's the Mission/Vision statement for the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science:

The Mission of the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences is to provide medical examiner and crime laboratory services of the highest quality in an unbiased manner with uncompromised integrity.


To provide consistent, quality death investigation and laboratory analysis for the benefit of the entire community.

To create a technological strongpoint for legal agencies to facilitate justice in criminal and civil proceedings.

To establish an academic environment for training in the field of Forensic Science.

Notice the difference? In Harris County, the "mission" is about quality science that benefits everyone. In Austin, the proposed mission is to "aid law enforcement in the detection, suppression, and prosecution of crime" and to "Allocate substantially all of its annual budget to such criminal identification activities."

If the department allocates "substantially all" of its budget to "identification," will it be able to implement the sort of quality-assurance systems needed to prevent false convictions? Will the department spend adequately on scientists' professional development? They haven't in the past. Nothing in the proposed ordinance reflects any of the myriad problems that put the lab on the "decouple" list in the first  place.

In the Harris County example, scientists are encouraged to be scientists; in Austin, the city manager views them as an agent of law enforcement. 

These are quite different approaches, reinforced by different governance structures: The Austin City Manager has suggested the crime lab report to him just like other departments. By contrast, the Harris County lab director reports directly to the county commissioners court. The Houston lab - itself spun off from the police department - has its own independent board.

Several local civil-rights and victim advocacy groups are petitioning the City Council to change the proposed mission statement and "activities" before this comes to a vote on Thursday. The same groups aim to champion changing the lab's governing structure soon after the new department is created.

This debate has been a long time coming, and it speaks poorly of Austin PD's leadership that crime-lab independence hasn't happened before now. The lab has been a mess for a while now and independence from law enforcement has been considered a best practice for more than a decade.

UPDATE: The city council approved the ordinance separating the crime lab from APD, and changed some of the language I'd complained of in this post. It remains to be seen whether they will come back with more changes to create an independent board for the lab.


Anonymous said...

Spencer Cronk has been city manager for less than three years. Technically the plural is correct but it might be more accurate to say that he's always been opposed to making the crime lab independent.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Fair enough, in my mind I was probably attributing Arellano's recalcitrance to him, since Spencer re-hired him. But yours is a decent editor's point.

Anonymous said...

Uh, I don't think you meant to compare the Austin forensic science effort with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science, but with Houston Forensic Science Center *, which is an acknowledged leader in independent forensic science. Unlike the IFS and most forensic labs, the Houston Forensic Science Center publicly reports the results of its proficiency testing and provides, on its website, access to the results of instrument performance testing. Which isn't surprising because the UH Law Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson and St. Thomas Professor Nicole Bremner Casarez.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I compared the "vision statement" from HC bc it was more directly comparable to Austin's bad language. I agree the independent-board-and-budget structure of Houston's lab is the model Austin should go for.

walt said...

1984-89, I worked for the Scientific Laboratory Division of Health & Environment in New Mexico. Specifically, I was a forensic alcohol toxicologist running a Gas Chromatograph looking for alcohol species. Specifically, we were tasked to run analyses on samples submitted by state-wide Law Enforcement, the Office of Medical Investigator, and Veterinary Diagnostic Services. We also approved any type of DWI breath equipment to be used in the state, approved each and every piece of DWI equipment used in the state, trained all users and those who checked calibration.

We were not under any type of law enforcement management. Instead, we were scientists who followed or created procedures that led to reproducible and reliable results. My boss repeatedly told us we don't care what the result is in any case, we only care that we do our job correctly without bias.

I testified in many State and County courts and this independence from law enforcement oversight, in my opinion, always lent itself to our credibility as an agency.

dfisher said...


The 2 crime labs you cited are the best examples of the corruption that is systemic in Criminal Justice System of TX. In Dallas Dr. Barnard is the Dallas CO appointed chief medical examiner, the appointed director of the Dallas CO Crime Lab(IFS), an appointed professor at U.T Southwestern Medical Center(SWIFS)and the the appointed chair of the TX Forensic Science Commission(FSC). All these co-appointments violate the TX Constitution Art. XVI, Sec. 40 & Sec. 33. Under Sec. 40 a person may not hold 2 paid appointments for profit at the same time. Dr. Barnard is paid a salary for the appointment as a professor and as medical examiner.(John Cornyn 2002 AG Opinion JC-0577)Art. XVI Sec. 40 also has prohibitions of conflicts at common law. There a 3 subdivisions of conflicts at common law, Self appointment, self employment and conflicting loyalties. Dr. Barnard as chair of the FSC and director of the IFS that is regulated by the FSC, so is guilty of self regulation, which is an example of conflicting loyalties, as is being the chief medical examiner and director of the the IFS. Being a professor at SWIFS, who is appointed by the regents and the chief ME of Dallas, who is appointed by the commissioners court, is again an example of conflicting loyalties.

The Harris CO Chief ME is also is also the director of the Houston Forensic Science Center, so has the same constitutional prohibitions.

Under Art. XVI, Sec 33 no division of the State of Texas is allowed to pay a salary or compensation to persons holding 2 appointments in violation of Sec. 40, all all official acts are void.

There is no Criminal Justice System in Texas, just a Criminal System.

Oprah, Not Her said...

@dfisher -

Hit the nail on the head. As FSC Chair, Dr. Barnard participated in the investigation of the APD lab which lead to its closure. Guess which lab got a bite of the apple to handle the DNA work that remained?

"...On Nov. 3, Council also approved APD's proposal for a six-year partnership with Dallas County's Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences to help eliminate its remaining 484 untested kits. (SWIFS will continue clearing Austin's backlog after a local lab reopens...)"

I'm not sure you can get a better definition of "Conflict Of Interest."

dfisher said...

Oprah, Not Her,

I'm aware of the conflicts in Austin's contract with Dallas CO IFS and filed the below report with the Austin City Manager's Office. Texas is nothing, but corrupt.

City of Austin
Attorney Joe Silvan

Mr. Silvan Esquire,

Per our earlier conversation, below is the requested summary of the issues, which call into question the City of Austin’s contract with the Dallas CO DNA lab. The conflict is due to its director’s statutory and constitutional prohibitions against the holding of several appointments at the same time.

Summary of Issues

Earlier this year the Texas Forensic Science Commission issued a report noting numerous problems with the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab, which resulted in its closing. At the time the TX Forensic Science Commission issued its report on APD’s DNA lab, Dr. Barnard was one of its members appointed by the governor. Approximately 2 weeks ago Gov. Abbott reappointed Dr. Barnard to the commission, but now as its director.

Since Dr. Barnard was a member of the forensic science commission when the APD DNA Lab was investigated and the resulting report was the proximate cause of its closing, it would appear to be a conflict of interest for the now director of the commission to profit from the closing of the lab.

The TX Forensic Science Commission is a statutory agency created under the TX Code of Criminal Procedure, Art. 38.01. Under section 3of the article, the commission is composed of nine members appointed by the governor, who have expertise listed under this section, as noted below.

1. 2 with expertise in the forensic sciences.
2. 1 who is a prosecuting district or county attorney.
3. 1 who is a criminal defense attorney.
4. 1 from the University of TX system specializing in clinical laboratory medicine.
5. 1 from Texas A&M University specializing in clinical laboratory medicine.
6. 1 from Texas Southern University with expertise in pharmaceutical laboratory research.
7. 1 from the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.
8. 1 from the Sam Houston State University College of Criminal Justice.

Dr. Barnard hold his appointment to the forensic science commission under number 4, as an appointed professor with the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Dr. Barnard has been a professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center since 1987.Currently DR. Barnard is paid $27,000 dollars a year as a professor of pathology at UT Southwestern Medical Center. (Salary Attached)...

Oprah, Not Her said...

@dfisher –

Wow! I didn’t know of hear anything about this in the news. Was there resolution? Did you get a response? I mean, Barnard is still at the FSC and at SWIFS as far as I know.

I know of another story. His sketchiness sinks deeper.

Just before Dr. Barnard was nominated to the FSC, SWIFS was being investigated by the FSC. Unbeknownst to anyone, two of the Commissioners investigating the lab received financial contracts for forensics work from SWIFS/Dallas County. An obvious COI, neither Commissioner disclosed their newly acquired contracts, but they still participated in discussions, votes, and actions related to the investigation.

The FSC investigation into SWIFS suddenly stopped and the complaints magically disappeared.

This may technically be more of bribe rather that a COI. But nonetheless, it’s almost as if the FSC didn’t have any lawyers around to explain this to the offending Commissioners.

If I recall correctly, these were the days when John Bradley was leading the FSC, so, of course the complaints disappeared.

dfisher said...

Oprah, Not Her,

I've been raising these issues for 20 yrs. now. There are no state agencies that are independent, they are all political, be it the Forensic Science Commission, The State Bar, the Commission on Judicial Conduct and so on. But until the media get back to the business of Investigative reporting and holding agencies accountable, thing are going to get worse.

As an example, No retired Judge in TX as taken the Oaths of Office for an appointment to preside over a trial in more than 20yrs. even though it is required under the constitution.

In August 2019 TX executed Larry Swearingen on an Order from retired Judge J.D. Langley who has failed and refused to take the Oath of Office since he retired from the bench.

The retired Judge Doug Shaver, who presided over the Rodney Reed Case and signed 2 execution Orders, retired in 1999 and never executed an oath for 20 years. When I filed a complaint against Judge Shaver in 2015, the Commission on Judicial Conduct Ruled since Shaver had never taken the required Oaths since he retire in 1999, then he wasn't a judge and they had no authority over him.

So where is Retired Judge J.D. Langley now? He's appointed to preside over the execution of Rodney Reed and no, he hasn't taken the Oaths for that appointment either.

I very rarely read Grits anymore, because it is so unfocused, jumping from topic to topic in can't effectively be a force for change.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Bernard is a mouthpiece for law enforcement. He will always err on the side of LE and back his own people, right, or wrong, and he will do it eloquently. He knows which side of the bread is buttered.

Anonymous said...

@anon 2-12-2021-

"Eloquent" is otherwise known as lying. There are numerous documents and statements made by him and his cronies that contradict one another. The problem is that no one holds him or his cronies accountable.