When the National Academy of Sciences published its landmark report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward in February of 2009, most observers quickly saw that it had the potential to shake the forensic science establishment to its core if its recommendations were followed. Four years on, not enough change has occurred. Let’s examine just one of those recommendations: making forensic labs independent of law enforcement. Here is recommendation number 4 from Strengthening Forensic Sciences:
To improve the scientific bases of forensic science examinations and to maximize independence from or autonomy within the law enforcement community, Congress should authorize and appropriate incentive funds…for allocation to state and local jurisdictions for the purpose of removing all public forensic laboratories and facilities from the administrative control of law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices.
The idea couldn’t be clearer: in order that we have better, science-based forensic methods and results, and especially to maximize independence from law enforcement, all forensic labs had to be removed from all law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices. As the report explained, “The best science is conducted in a scientific setting as opposed to a law enforcement setting. Because forensic scientists often are driven in their work by a need to answer a particular question related to the issues of a particular case, they sometimes face pressure to sacrifice appropriate methodology for the sake of expediency.”
Here are a couple of reports from two of the few jurisdictions that have tried to make this happen.
In Washington D.C., the local government replaced the old police-run crime lab in October with a new $220 million independent forensic science department and laboratory. In this article in the BLT (the Blog of the Legal Times), the director of the new program is already facing questions from D.C.’s city council (the equivalent of a state legislature) about promised gains in efficiency that have not yet materialized, and a less-than-smooth transition to independence from its former law enforcement masters. And there was also this, from the police union, which opposed the shift to independence:
Kristopher Baumann, head of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police, testified that he was concerned that the department planned to replace sworn officers with civilians for crime scene processing work. He said that in dangerous neighborhoods, for instance, unarmed civilian technicians would be at risk if unaccompanied by law enforcement. He added that the department failed to give notification or engage in collective bargaining over the change as required by law.
According to the BLT, Baumann added that “the union is pursuing litigation over how the department has handled the shift to civilian technicians.”
In St. Paul, Minnesota, where a scandal has rocked the police lab since the summer of 2012 (read about this in two articles on the Failed Evidence blog, here and here) the change to a civilian-run laboratory has also run in to opposition.
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
The St. Paul Police Federation is opposing the city’s plan to hire a civilian scientist to run its troubled crime lab, which is undergoing major changes. Federation attorney Chris Wachtler sent Police Chief Thomas Smith two letters in February stating that the move constituted a “unilateral change” in the union’s terms and conditions of employment.
Readers of my book Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science won’t be surprised by the fact that there is resistance to making forensic labs independent and removing them from law enforcement control. What is interesting is that a main source of opposition in both situations is the police unions. And they have made no secret of the reasons for their opposition: it’s not about the science or what will work best. Rather, they simply oppose any threat to law enforcement control or law enforcement jobs.
Personally, I believe in unions. I feel that they have been a key factor in generating middle class prosperity in the U.S. since the early 20th century. But this seems like simple obstruction of a change needed to benefit the public, just for the gain of a few.
About Our Guest Blogger
David A. Harris is Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He is also Associate Dean for Research. He is the author of Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (NYU Press, 2012). He teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, and Criminal Justice Policy. He studies police and the Constitution, police behavior, racial profiling, and police accountability. His other books are Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work (The New Press, 2012), and Good Cops: The Case for Preventive Policing (The New Press, 2005). Find him through his blog, http://failedevidence.wordpress.com. He can also be contacted at email@example.com.