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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!
While some of the ways in which forensic science affects our lives are obvious, many are not so widely known. Many of us think only of forensic science as a tool of criminal justice, and even then, do not consider all that it does in that realm. Quality forensic science improves all our lives — here are a few of the many benefits we receive from it when it is at its best:
In criminal justice, when evidence is available, forensic scientists and their work may:
Help to determine if a crime has been committed
Help to determine how a crime was committed
Help to determine when a crime was committed
Help to determine what sequence of events occurred at a crime scene
Exclude the innocent as suspects
Identify the guilty
Evaluate evidence that may lead to conviction and testify in court
Counteract less reliable evidence, such as eyewitness accounts and false confessions
Exonerate the wrongly convicted
Link the guilty to previously unsolved crimes
Resolve cases that took place long ago
Save investigators time and effort, reducing associated costs
Reduce costs of trials by avoiding delays
The work of forensic scientists has a major effect on safety through their investigations of fires, accidents, and fatalities. These include investigations that lead to improvements in:
Fire prevention and suppression
Safety in public venues such as amusement parks
Medicolegal Death investigation
The duties of medical examiners and coroners (ME/Cs) vary greatly between jurisdictions. Many times, we are misled into thinking their work affects only the dead, but the vast majority of the work of these offices is on behalf of the living, and affects our lives in ways we don’t always see. These are a few of the things they may do:
Receive reports of all deaths in the jurisdiction
Identify remains (sometimes working with forensic anthropologists and DNA labs to do so)
Determine the cause and manner of an individual’s death
Determine, within certain limits, the time of death
Notify families of deaths of loved ones
Issue death certificates — families, especially those who have lost a sole breadwinner, may end up destitute if death certificates are delayed, because without one, insurance will not pay out, and none of the deceased’s assets can be disposed of.
Arrange for disposition of the remains of those whose families are too poor to arrange for burial, or whose families are unknown or unwilling to arrange for burial.
Affect public health policy through the data on death certificates — funding is given to those researching diseases that cause the highest number of deaths.
Affect workplace safety through investigations of workplace deaths (and other items listed in public safety, above)
Prepare for and respond to mass disasters
Identify disease outbreaks and other causes of sudden increases in death within the jurisdiction
Identify potential terrorist threats such as anthrax
Maintain records of unidentified remains and enter information into NCIC and NamUS databases
Identify potential hazards to children such as co-sleeping and cords on blinds
Take pro-active steps to ensure community safety by studying patterns of deaths, making recommendations to legislative bodies for preventive measures, and issuing public warnings.
Military uses include identification of remains, including return of remains of MIA from previous conflicts; identification of toxins; investigation of events which may require military prosecution and more.
Human rights work in discovering mass graves and identification of remains, collection and analysis of forensic evidence which may allow prosecution and conviction of human rights violators.
Homeland security and immigration— biometrics to help ensure that those entering the country are who they claim to be and do not have criminal records; identification of suspected terrorists; response to mass fatalities.
Analysis of explosive materials/explosions
Assist in resolution of missing persons cases
Identification of unknown substances which may be dangerous drugs, biohazards, and toxins
Protection of wildlife through forensic work of Dept Fish & Game, National Park Service
Detection of fraud, computer crimes, art forgery, and much more.
This is just a partial list, but we hope it will give you a sense of how important it is to ensure that forensic science is given the support it needs, and that we also ensure it is of the best possible quality.
Welcome to the newly updated site for the Crime Lab Project and its blog! To make it easier to keep our site current, we’ve combined the two.
Current news about the Crime Lab Project and forensic science will be displayed here on the front page. We encourage you to explore the pages of the site: navigate from the links above. (If you are using a mobile device to view the site, use the pulldown menu for Pages.) ”Public Forensic Science Needs Your Help” is a good place to start.
If you haven’t previously visited our blog, browse through it as well. Let us know what you think!
We’re updating the CLP Web site, so this blog and our Twitter account (crimelabproject) will serve in the meantime as our main sources of news about the CLP. If you’ve come here looking for basic information, please leave a comment and we’ll get back to you. We’ll have more pages up here soon. Thanks for your patience!
Also, don’t forget that you can subscribe to the CLP News and receive a weekly email with links to news stories about forensic science. Just send a blank email to
We’re starting the new year resolved to get the newsletter back on track. If you’d like to stay abreast of forensic science news, we hope to help. Just send a blank email message to CLPNewsemail@example.com
You’ll get a weekly (most weeks) email with links to forensic science news. Your email address will not be given to others.
We are going to be working on an update of the Crime Lab Project Web site, but for now, we hope you’ll keep checking here.
We’re very pleased to announce that the Crime Lab Project Foundation, our nonprofit charity, worked with the organizers of Left Coast Crime 2010 and the California Forensic Science Institute to hold a Forensic Science Day on Wednesday, March 10, 2010. This sold-out event was held at the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, which houses the crime labs of both the Los Angeles Police Department and the LA County Sheriff’s Department at CSU, Los Angeles.
The event not only allowed attendees to get a tour of the building, but to hear from experts currently working in forensic science at the labs, legal experts, and instructors in CSULA’s stellar forensic science program. Best of all, all proceeds raised funds for student grants.
We were amazed, though, when the good folks at Left Coast Crime 2010 doubled those funds, through a silent auction and other fund-raising activities, resulting in a gift of $15,000 to the CSFI. This money has been dedicated to helping graduate students to purchase research supplies. Grants have already been received by students researching better methods for obtaining DNA evidence, for discovering the time of death, and other worthy projects.
The Press-Register newspaper in Mobile, Alabama has been running a superb series of stories about a backlog of over 1 million fingerprints in the state that have not been uploaded into the national fingerprint database.
What makes the series stand above most about backlogs? The paper considers many ramifications of the fingerprint backlog, include others than the most obvious. Its reporters considered — and presented to readers — the complexities that make the term “backlog” anything but straightforward. And they looked at the causes of the backlog, not just the numbers.
Below are some links to the stories, some of which include video. Fingerprint backlogs are a serious problem in many states, and the causes of the one in Alabama are similar to those elsewhere. And because criminals travel, what is happening in Alabama affects all of us. No matter what state you live in, this series is worth reading.