Though CSI-based television shows often glorify forensic evidence as foolproof, experts say real crime labs may be more prone to errors than previously thought.
A recent U.S. National Research Council report called the forensic science system “badly fragmented,” and claims forensic techniques are in dire need of improved reliability.
Investigators argue that forensic science as a whole would benefit from increased accountability and regulation.
This would include better educational programs, mandatory accreditation of forensic science programs, certification of practitioners and more serious research –– all of which are geared toward establishing limits and performance measures in forensic disciplines.
Forensic science in particular, scientists argue, needs increased oversight and regulation because it encompasses a broad range of disciplines.
The leaders of the committee that was established specifically to identify the needs of the forensic science community presented the study’s findings to Congress last week.
Committee co-chair Harry T. Edwards recommended that Congress create a National Institute of Forensic Science. The institute would be an independent federal entity that would have oversight of the forensic community and encourage advances in forensic science practices.
The committee consisted of Edwards, a senior circuit judge and chief judge emeritus in the U.S. Court of Appeals, and Constantine Gatsonis, a Professor of Biostatistics and Director of the Center for Statistical Sciences at Brown University, as well as 15 other law and forensic experts.
Lieutenant Tom Waltz of the Davis Police Department said that forensic evidence is an integral part of many criminal investigations, and is confident in the techniques currently used.
“We’ve had successes with the various types of forensic technologies,” Waltz said. “So it works for us.“
Waltz, who is in charge of evidence for DPD, emphasized the importance of a secure chain of custody that assures evidence is handled correctly, something increased regulation in the forensic community would improve.
“Crime labs have to be held to certain standards,” he said.
The wide variety of forensic evidence – from ballistics data to fingerprint, fiber and DNA identification – requires different types of expertise, Waltz said.
In fact, forensic science encompasses many different disciplines, such as toxicology, chemistry, medicine, biochemistry and biology.
Practitioners include both scientists and those without degrees. Equally important are those without degrees, such as laboratory technicians, law enforcement officers and crime scene investigators.
If established, the NIFS would make mandatory the certification of all forensics practitioners and thereby increase oversight across the board, according to the study.
UC Davis Forensic Science graduate program director Fred Tulleners said the recommendations of the report are reasonable – but further research and regulation will require increased funding.
“[Forensic science departments] are continuously competing against law enforcement dollars,” he said. “Politically, chiefs of police and district attorneys have more vested interests in their police departments than smaller crime labs.“
The forensic science program at UCD is no different. In fact, it is one of UCD’s few self-funded programs and receives no university funding, Tulleners said.
It is because of this competition for dollars, as well as a lack of communication and across the board standards for crime labs, that some see the forensic community as fragmented, he said.
“Nationwide, we’re fragmented,” he said. “Different jurisdictions have different standards.“
In California, though, the fragmentation identified in the NRC report is less of a problem.
“Most labs are pretty cohesive in California, because we communicate well with each other and meet with one another on a regular basis,” Tulleners said.
AARON BRUNER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.