District Moves Away from Police Control of Forensic Functions

In the future, homicides in the District of Columbia will still be investigated by police officers. But when those officers need key tests of evidence like ballistics analysis or DNA samples, they’ll turn to civilians in white lab coats, not their fellow cops.

And all of the city’s testing will take place under a single roof, at the new Consolidated Forensic Laboratory in Southwest D.C.

It’s a fundamental reorganization of the traditional police department, prompted by a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report that called for separating forensic functions from police agencies. D.C. is implementing it by creating the new Department of Forensic Science, whose director, Max Houck, reports directly to Mayor Vincent Gray.

The new building merges the MPD’s Forensics Lab, the D.C. Public Health Lab and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner into one building. And the MPD’s role in the facility will be phased out, replacing sworn officers with civilian scientists in a new Department of Forensic Science. That unit will report to the city, not its police force.

Previously, the District used several MPD facilities and federal labs to analyze evidence.

Flawed forensic science is a major factor in wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that has freed 301 inmates after discovering evidence they didn’t commit the crimes they were convicted of. The group says that bad science along with faked tests or misleading expert testimony do the most to send the innocent to prison.

The group supports more reforms to provide national regulation of forensic science agencies to crack down on problem jurisdictions. A 2004 federal law requires states to have oversight mechanisms to receive federal funds for crime labs, but the group says not all states have complied with the new rules.

Houck, the department’s new director, said at his hearing that it’s important that forensic scientists not be influenced by prosecutors or police officers, who face pressure to make arrests and win convictions. He said a recent scandal at a Boston area crime lab, where a former chemist is charged with tampering with evidence, could have been prevented if managers had noticed she was processing hundreds more cases than her peers.

Her only motive, according to reports, was her desire to be seen as a good worker.

It’s those kinds of checks and balances that advocates say D.C.’s system will avoid.

If that pressure is undue and you make a wrong call and you misidentify someone, then the checks and balances in that system have not been effective,” Houck said.

The bill creating the Consolidated Forensic Laboratory mandates that the lab become accredited. Houck warned at his hearing that he was unsure if the accrediting organization would sign off immediatly on the facility because a hybrid team of civilian scientists and MPD officers is slated to staff the lab in the immediate future.

The report, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” which informed D.C.’s decision to build the Consolidayed Forensic Laboratory is below.

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