It's been four months since the grand opening of Washington's new forensic sciences laboratory. The $220 million facility is fully operational and District of Columbia Department of Forensic Sciences director Max Houck said they have a plan in place for moving towards accreditation and are making progress in filling vacant positions.
The 287,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art building isn't just home to new lab space, though. It is itself an experiment: Houck is guiding the city's transition to independent forensic testing, in which evidence testing and storage are no longer handled by law enforcement.
Houck sat down with Legal Times on January 25 to talk about the lab's first few months. Besides forensic sciences, the new building houses the city's public health lab, which is also under Houck's department, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which continues to manage the city's morgue. His comments have been edited for space.
Legal Times: How has the transition gone so far?
Houck: It's gone about the way I expected. A few bumps here and there. Those are, as I said, to be expected. But in general things are moving along quite well. It's been, at times, frustrating of course because it's new and we're trying to coordinate different groups that haven't been together before.
It's almost like a family reunion, because people go, "Hey, I always knew we did that, but I didn’t know it was you." It's been great to see people come together and pull together like that. That’s been one of the high points. The problems are, you've got people who have been working independently and now how do you get everybody to start at the same rate and same direction.
As far as the shift to becoming an independent crime lab, has that made a difference yet?
It's prompted more discussion than we thought, just internally. Our general counsel starts next month, and so we've been having discussions with her and the forensic lab. It doesn't affect the public health lab so much because they're not in that adversarial court arena. But we've had some discussions about what does independence mean. We can say we're independent from law enforcement, great, but what does that mean? How does that change what we do? And we realized that in the forensic community, there probably isn't a good notion of that, of really what that means.
There's almost nobody in forensic science who has not worked for law enforcement, so it's hard to peel back that mindset and say: What do we keep, what do we get rid of, what do we need to be aware of, how do we parse our new situation? We're going to be struggling with that for a while.
To date, it's been good because we're establishing relationships with groups who we might not [have had relationships with before].
[The D.C. Public Defender Service is] going to come in and go through and give us their viewpoint on what we can do better. And this is one of those notions of independence that [is] interesting: not so we can take our protocols and change them in their favor, but we'll have two sets of views of saying, here's how it's done, do you see issues with the science from your viewpoint as a legal expert? That’s not been done before to my knowledge, at least not, "Come on in."
Things like that, that change that relationship in terms of independence...we're just now beginning to realize how we want to define it. And we sort of decided that, that we, being the first independent lab post-NAS report, we want to take the lead on redefining what independence means [Note: Houck was referring to a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences on the state of forensic sciences.]
What's your relationship like now with law enforcement?
About the same, we're realizing where the boundaries are.
It's working out those relationships. We had a situation where another law enforcement agency had a case that may be related to a case in the District. Well, how do we work that out? Because they want to come in and have access to some things, well how do we work that out? Because we're independent, do we do that? Do we give the evidence back to [the Metropolitan Police Department] and let them do that? Do we let the attorneys? How do we work these things out so that it's in the best interest of the science in the case.
I would say at least one a day. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good. But that's normal. It's funny, when people say, "You know, well an agency like yours…" and I stop myself before I correct them and say, "I don’t think there is one like this." I'm not sure anybody's done something like this before. Because agencies have been pulled together but not like this, and certainly not here.
You've been paying attention to controversies facing other labs – what are you learning from what's happening in other jurisdictions? Has it changed at all what you're doing here?
While all too often with forensic organizations, you'll see that sort of thing in the newspaper and you sort of click your tongue and go, "Mmm, that's too bad, good thing that didn't happen here." Well, then, what do you do? It's not so much that it happened, and you may think you have a good lab, and it may be a good lab, but then do you do anything? Is there any feedback, internally, to say, could that happen here and if it did what would we do?
I think that feedback, that self-reflection, is a key component and I think the better labs do that. We're certainly doing that in a variety of ways and it will increase once our general counsel gets here. [Note: The department's new general counsel is Christine Funk, a public defender in Minnesota who has specialized in forensic science issues.]
Where do things stand now with accreditation?
Public health is on a track to meet accreditation by the deadline. I've just been so, so thrilled with the progress that the public health lab has made. They've just done fabulous work.
On the forensic side, what we're doing is looking at the work that DNA and materials – which is what we're calling "trace" now – has done for their accreditation and sort of tease out, what are higher-order policies. Push the burden of policy up as far as it needs to go and then push the protocols down to the point of the first level of resolution.
With everything up and running, is there anything you're most excited about?
The people. I'm sort of a misanthrope, left to my own devices, and the people here continually amaze me at what they do, what they pull together, their attitudes, their joy at being here. I can't stress to you how lucky I am to have that group.
I'm trying to set the right tone and approach for that [accreditation], stressing that the big message is: it doesn’t matter where you work in the building, you and I have the same job, which is to get us accredited.
I always stress to people that science, quality and accreditation – [these are] three separate things. Three separate systems and processes. So just because you're accredited does not ensure quality. It's a mark of quality but it doesn't guarantee it. Your quality system is what pushes your ability to deliver consistent, accurate product.
National Law Journal photo by Diego M. Radzinschi.