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Forensics in Government Labs: A Dying Breed

by Dennis Ryan, an ALM Listing Expert Forensics in government laboratories in the United States is undergoing a transformation.  The transformation began within the last ten years and principally involves the comparative science disciplines that were a mainstay in many government labs.  The comparative sciences includes, but is not limited to, impression evidence, paint examination, fiber examinations and questioned document examination.  With declining funding for salaries and equipment, lab administrators have been forced to choose between DNA and the comparative sciences. Many of the comparative sciences provide investigative leads that otherwise would not be encompassed by a DNA examination.  For instance, a robbery demand note will be processed for DNA rather than be subjected to a questioned document examination for the possibility of indentations.  In a sexual assault case, a fiber examination may assist in placing the defendant at a specific location.  Tape lifts for fiber examinations are collected by rarely if ever subject to a forensic fiber examination.  Anonymous threat letters are also rarely subjected to a questioned document examination.  When is a forensic paint examination conducted on automotive parts left as the scene of an auto accident to determine the year and make of the automobile that left the scene?  It is likely that that evidence will be put in the long term storage of the government evidence vault never to be examined or seen again. Specialization in forensic science has also contributed to the decline of forensic science in government laboratories.  The days of the trace evidence analyst doing different types of examinations is long gone; one analyst will do the paint examination, while another analyst will do the footwear impression and another analyst will do instrumental analysis.  While specialization is a positive for forensics, the municipality that funds the forensic laboratory has not funded for this specialization and fails to see the need for the additional analysts.  Many forensic laboratories have met the need for specialization by either informing their “customers” that they no longer offer those services (handwriting examination, fiber examination) or subcontracting with an outside laboratory or forensic scientist.  A majority of government laboratories subcontract some, if not all, of their forensic services.  One of the reasons for the subcontracting phenomenon is all about turnaround time.  Many government laboratories have gone from turnaround times of three or four weeks to three or four months.  Many government laboratories work on the premise that they will examine evidence only when needed for court.  A call to the government laboratory from an investigator or prosecutor will be needed in order to put their case in the queue.  The alternative for the investigator or prosecutor is to reach out to an outside contractor, especially if the prosecutor is looking for a short turnaround time. Laboratory accreditation has also contributed to the transformation of the government forensic laboratory.  Cases that used to take an hour or two hours are now taking double that time.  This contributes to the backlog of cases in the laboratory.  While accreditation is a positive factor, many administrators of government laboratories have not “wrapped their head” around the whole accreditation issue.  Many administrators are taken aback when faced with regulatory control from an outside accreditation body.  There are other administrators who look at the accreditation body and react by letting the accreditation body “drive the train” and set the goals and objectives for the government laboratory.  Accreditation should be a cooperative effort between laboratory personnel and the accreditation body. There are efforts from many different fronts to increase the funding to forensics and forensic laboratories.  Only time will tell if it is too little too late, or if the transformation will yield a better, more effective structure of the government laboratory.

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