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.
Follow the CLP Twitter feed (crimelabproject). Read the NAS report – it’s free online. Take our Backlog Quiz and the Death Quiz. Check out the links we’ve provided in the on the sidebar to the right.
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.