Situation forensic science

“The adoption of technology by police agencies has been a type of 'black box' -- police have accepted such technologies, but have generally not assessed or evaluated them. They bring in new equipment or new technologies because they work in theory, but know little about how to use such technologies so that they work best."

That's how two Harvard scholars, David Weisburd and Peter Neyroud, explained the relationship of police and science in their article "Police Science:  Toward a New Paradigm".




The article makes it sound almost like law enforcement pillages science for the stuff they like (such as new technology), but aren't really taking a close look at effectiveness.  These scholars are not just antagonists, though: they seek a working relationship with law enforcement. They point to ways that science might help with decisions on the effectiveness of new methods, tools and technologies under a movement labeled ‘evidence-based policing’.  Evidence in this case refers not to criminal evidence but evidence or scientific proof that the tools, techniques and even policies of policing yield positive results.

At the core of evidence-based policing is the idea that law enforcement should seek scientific evidence to determine what policing methods work.  Putting things to test and measuring results can help answer questions such as:  "Do new weapons make policing safer or more effective? Will DNA testing be cost-effective for the average police agency? Can automobile vehicle locator systems be used to increase the value of police patrol?"

Almost a two ago, the National Research Council of the National Academies released a congressionally mandated report on forensics:  Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States:  A Path Forward.  The report, commonly referred to as the NAS Report, took a look at the scientific evidence behind a number of areas in forensic science.  It has inspired intense debate by citing serious deficiencies in the nation's forensic science system, and by calling for major reforms and new research.  The report describes concerns about the application of science across a wide spectrum of areas, such as forensic odontology, biological-evidence analysis, hair-evidence analysis, document-evidence analysis, fiber-evidence analysis and friction-ridge analysis (including footwear, tire impression, tool mark, palm and fingerprint analysis).  The report asserts that law enforcement has been too willing to rely on experts while not making critical examinations of the scientific evidence behind these various areas of forensic analysis.

Fingerprints are a good example. On one hand, The Fingerprint Sourcebook says prints have "served all governments worldwide during the past 100 years to provide accurate identification of criminals. No two fingerprints have ever been found alike in many billions of human and automated computer comparisons. Fingerprints are the very basis for criminal history foundation at every police agency on earth."  The book cites much research in support of this assertion. Yet the NAS Report points to recent research that "experienced [fingerprint] examiners do not necessarily agree with even their own past conclusions when the examination is presented in a different context some time later."

Thomas Bohan, director of Portland, Maine-based consultants MTC Forensics and a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, points to a weakness in logic of fingerprint-identification validity in the article "Forensic Science braces for change":  "The FBI fingerprint division for years has asserted that fingerprint identification has been validated by a hundred years of jury trials. They just don't get it." 

Both Bohan and the NAS Report point to DNA as the best model for validation.  Bohan describes DNA identification as being "delivered full-blown to the forensic labs after years of validation in university laboratories."

The International Association of Chiefs of Police agrees with the need for validation of fingerprints.  In a response to the NAS Report, the IACP published "Forensic Science: a critical concern for police chiefs".  In this article, the IACP endorses the need to "validate the scientific basis of some forensic disciplines--especially pattern evidence disciplines such as fingerprint identification."

While the IACP supports several points of the NAS Report, it raises strong concerns and directly opposes some assertions.  The NAS Report favors the idea that science should be performed by scientific institutes.  Not just the research of forensic science but the analysis of evidence, as well.  The report recommends that crime laboratories be independent of law enforcement agencies.  The IACP "strongly opposes the report's recommendation that crime laboratories and other forensic services should be removed from law enforcement agencies."  They raise concerns that "the report was developed without input from law enforcement practitioners."  And they "strongly believe that all research and other initiatives designed to study and enhance the delivery of forensic sciences must include the participation of law enforcement practitioners."

The ideas in the NAS Report are beginning to take root, though. Councilman Phil Mendelson recently introduced a bill to the Washington D.C. Council to create a forensic department independent from the police.  Mayor Vince Gray has endorsed the plan.  The mayor's Safety Deputy, Paul Quander, describes the need for an independent lab to The Examiner:  "Anyone accused of committing a crime facing scientific evidence should be assured that methods of analysis have undergone the scrutiny of scientific peer review and are independent from any real or perceived conflicts of interest."

Regardless of your opinion on the role of science in policing, you can't ignore the NAS Report.  All sides are taking stock in its conclusions.  Paul B. Kennedy, an attorney in Houston, tweeted as PaulBKennedy while attending a National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' seminar in 2010:

(1 of 3) "Don't be afraid to take on the state's forensics expert."

(2 of 3) "'...the interpretation of forensic evidence is not infallible.' --NAS"

(3 of 3) "The current forensic science is NOT based on science.  Its just forensics."

The common ground

With all the debate, there is one thing everyone seems to agree on.  Money.  Forensics is under-funded as it is currently operating.  If the future becomes focused on change, even more resources will be required.  Science will come at a cost.

The same scholars criticizing law enforcement for not effectively examining science acknowledge this.  "Medical research in the United States receives more than $28 billion a year in government funding (National Institutes of Health, 2008)...  ...Research on dental care in the United States has a federal budget of more than $389 million per year (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, 2007). Education research received $167 million in the United States in 2009 (U.S. Department of Education, 2009). However, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the primary U.S. funder of research in criminal justice, had a total budget of only $48 million in fiscal year 2009 and a budget for research and evaluation (in which its policing division is located) of only $13.7 million."

The IACP endorsed the creation of an entity to establish standards and best practices but also called for that institution to "serve as a funding source for forensic science services".  Agreeing with the NAS Report's idea to have an accreditation and certification for forensic sciences, the IACP points out the realities:  "the IACP is strongly opposed to proposals that would institute 'mandatory' accreditation/certification requirements in the absence of secure, sustainable, and stable federal assistance funding."  Without funding, a mandatory accreditation would bring our nation’s evidence-analysis system to a grinding halt.

Dr. David Hassell, FBI Laboratory Director, described the gap between basic research and its application in solving crimes to nature news as the "valley of death" because "nobody wants to pay for it, nobody really wants to do it".  "That gap needs to be filled by thorough testing of new techniques before they are released to crime labs," says Hassell who is a chemist with a background in this sort of validation.

Even Washington D.C. with its commitment to implementing an independent lab sees the financial challenges. Safety Deputy Quander says, "Given our current fiscal pressures, we may not be able to immediately expand the lab into new services."

Have an opinion on this matter? Want to get involved? Email me at samb@signalscape.com.

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