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In February, 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a report entitled Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. The report is available on the web at:
Many in the forensic science community considered it to be a watershed event which would press the federal government into action on at least some of the NAS recommendations. Indeed, Congress has looked into the matter and the White House convened a task force to offer proposals. But to date, nothing substantive has emerged from these efforts.
More recently, the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have agreed to establish a National Forensic Science Commission (NFSC). The Federal Register posted a notice inviting interested individuals to apply for the 30 commission positions on NFSC.
While the government moves at glacial-like speeds, it is moving. In the meanwhile, focus has shifted to the legal community where the defense bar, Innocence Project and legal scholars regularly press for change. Those changes may well be de jure and come out of appellate and Supreme Court decisions.
In the words of the famous singer, Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changin’.” How the future of forensic science will turn out is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for certain: there will be changes and likely for the betterment of the nation’s criminal justice system.
An early supporter of the Crime Lab Project, Barry A. J. Fisher served as the Crime Laboratory Director for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, a position he held from 1987 until his retirement in 2009. A Distinguished Fellow and former president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, he received its highest honor, the Gradwohl Medallion. He served as a member of the American Bar Association, Criminal Justice Section’s Ad Hoc Committee to Ensure the Integrity of the Criminal Process and served as a member of the American Judicature Society’s Commission of Forensic Science and Public Policy. He has also authored several forensic science books. Follow him on Twitter:
Please follow the Crime Lab Project on Twitter! Most weekdays we’ll send you links to 5-10 news stories about forensic science. It’s a great way to stay current and to see both the good forensic science does at its best and the problems we need to solve to help it be its best.
You can see our @crimelabproject Twitter feed here, at the right. You can follow us by clicking on the Twitter logo, or by visiting https://twitter.com/crimelabproject.com
While efforts are made to grab the attention of U.S. federal lawmakers — and we all know how easy that is – regarding the problems in our current system of delivering forensic science services, we thought you might want to act locally.
One of the many problems with forensic science in the U.S. is that it is fragmented, as the National Academy of Sciences declared in a major study published in 2009. One aspect of the fragmentation is that within the U.S. there are thousands of entities and jurisdictions delivering those forensic science services. Depending on where you live in the U.S., your local police department, your sheriff’s department, your county coroner or medical examiner, your state police, your local health department, your district attorney’s office, a state lab, a state medical examiner, the FBI, the ATF, the State Department, the Border Patrol, FEMA, the Office of Homeland Security, or military labs may all provide one or more aspects of forensic science services. Your coroner may be elected, appointed, a justice of the peace, or a district attorney; may be a medical doctor, a dentist, an undertaker, or a gas station attendant — to name a few of the variations. Your state may require as little as one 40-hour course for any individual to hold that office — or may not require any training at all.
The conditions these forensic science providers will work in also varies, depending on local and state requirements, in the degree of funding they receive, the degree of access to leadership they will have within their agency, and the support they will have from that leadership. The facilities they are housed in may be a modern purpose-built lab, or they may be in a small surplus room at the back of the police station. They may be collecting fingerprints in much the same way it was done fifty years ago, or they may be using the newest high tech scanners and other devices available. The staff may be highly trained civilian scientists with advanced degrees, police officers with training and certification in some specialities, or people who just sort of fell into the work and have no training other than what can be provided on the job. There may be facilities that have the ability to process DNA, or there may be a coroner’s office without a refrigerator for holding remains pending an autopsy.
Forensic science and those who provide forensic science services have the potential to do so much good for us — a functioning system of justice is only one of the many ways we benefit from it. By the same token, in the hands of those who are not properly trained or who work in conditions that are bound to lead to errors or worse, it can do great harm. It can leave victims without justice and their families without answers, it can allow criminals to remain at large and able to harm others, it can cause the innocent to be unjustly punished or put to death.
Imagine, just for a moment, that you are the victim of a violent crime, or an innocent person unjustly accused, or someone whose loved one died under suspicious circumstances. How well do you want forensic science to work?
So here are three steps to take:
1) Find out who provides forensic science services in your community and learn about local conditions.
What forensic science services does your local police department provide? What are their capabilities? What are their facilities like? What training is required to hold each job? If they have a lab, are they accredited? If they are doing fingerprints, what equipment do they use, and how are their examiners trained? What testing do they send out to another agency? How long do they wait for results? What is the local death investigator’s policy about unidentified bodies — is the office taking and keeping biological samples? Are they reporting to the NamUS database? There are more questions listed on our post, “What Can I Do to Help Public Forensic Science?“
2) Become educated about possible problems.
3) Find others who care about these issues and form a local forensic science support group.
Form a local organization that will raise awareness in your community, bring problems before your government representatives and the press, and ensure that your community does not suffer the consequences of inadequate support for quality forensic science.
Let us know how things are going! We’ll do what we can to help. Leave contact info in a comment here (we won’t publish it) or send an email to us at crimelabproject at gmail.
While we undergo some changes. We’ll be actively posting again soon — thanks for your patience!
Whether as part of the Day of the Dead, All Saints Day, All Souls Day or for other reasons, as we remember those we’ve loved and lost, let’s honor their memories by committing to a better system of investigating death in the United States. A system that acknowledges that we’ve learned a few things since the 18th century, from which time some of our jurisdictions’ modes of death investigation are all but unchanged.
What would that system include?
To begin to get to the ideal, jurisdictions throughout the U.S. would adopt the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences.
Shockingly, millions of Americans live in jurisdictions that:
1) Require no forensic, legal, or any other kind of training for an individual to be a coroner.
2) Do not provide office space for coroners.
3) Do not provide computers for coroners. Death records are on a paper system, likely not stored carefully or in one place.
4) Do not provide coroners refrigeration equipment for the storage of bodies.
5) Do not provide coroners or medical examiners with Xray and other basic examination equipment.
So the beginning steps include items would seem like “no brainers” — basic training requirements, facilities, equipment — but apparently our elected officials need to hear that current conditions must not continue. None of us, no matter how excellent things may be in our own jurisdictions, can afford what is bound to happen when so many others live in jurisdictions where death investigation is in a horribly crude and out-dated condition. Missing persons cases, disease outbreak, product safety, and criminal justice are just a few of the areas that suffer nationally when death investigation is inadequate. You think crime and cause of death statistics are accurate? How can they be, if death investigators don’t know how to do their job or are lacking the basic tools they need to do it well?
For those jurisdictions without the resources to do more, perhaps it’s time we looked at creative solutions, such as regional death investigation centers.
Nationally, we face a dire shortage of forensic pathologists, so perhaps we should consider programs that would pay for schooling and training in exchange for a commitment of a number of years of service in medical examiners offices.
What are your ideas on ways we can change death investigation for the better?
Posted by: Jan Burke