For Washington's new independent forensic sciences department and laboratory, which launched in October, the honeymoon period appears to be over. Appearing before the D.C. Council last week for the agency's first-ever annual performance oversight hearing, Director Max Houck faced questions about the lab's efficiency, communication with other law enforcement agencies, and management of the transition to independent forensic testing.
The $220 million facility in Southwest Washington is home to the forensic sciences lab, public health lab, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, although only the forensic sciences and public health labs fall under the control of the newly created Department of Forensic Sciences. The department and lab were designed to make forensic testing independent of law enforcement, a key recommendation of a 2009 report on forensic science by the National Research Council of the National Academies.
During the oversight hearing on February 27, Houck said the department was making good progress in hiring and reorganizing how the city managed forensic testing. Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chair of the judiciary and public safety committee, asked about previous testimony from D.C. police Chief Cathy Lanier that some testing was taking longer to complete, pointing out that the state-of-the-art lab was built with the expectation that it would speed up investigations. Houck said that he expected turnaround times to improve as they figured out lab procedures and protocols.
Kristopher Baumann, head of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, testified that he was concerned that the department planned to replace sworn officers with civilians for crime scene processing work. He said that in dangerous neighborhoods, for instance, unarmed civilian technicians would be at risk if unaccompanied by law enforcement. He added that the department failed to give notification or engage in collective bargaining over the change as required by law.
"It's not a good start," Baumann said, noting that the union is pursuing litigation over how the department has handled the shift to civilian technicians. Baumann's other concerns included the lack of communication with the union and situations where there weren’t enough technicians to respond to crime scenes. He warned that in the long-run, these problems could affect the legitimacy of evidence processed by the lab in criminal cases.
Houck said that he was concerned about the safety of civilian technicians, but that in other jurisdictions with civilians, police officers remained in charge of securing the scene. Houck told Wells that he planned to ask for more staff positions in the crime scene services division to meet demand.
One of the biggest hurdles facing the department in the coming year is accreditation. Houck said the department is making progress in getting the forensic sciences lab and public health lab divisions accredited by January 1, 2014. He said the department will start to seek accreditation for other new services, such as analysis of digital evidence, controlled substances and forensic photography, once they're fully staffed and ready for casework. The department will seek accreditation of the crime scene services division once it's completely civilianized, he said.
Wells pressed Houck for more information on how the council could measure the department's performance moving forward, as well as when Houck would be in a position to take full responsibility for the department's performance; certain functions are still being carried out by the police department during the transition.
Houck said he plans to track the department's performance using a system called FORESIGHT, which he developed while leading the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University. He said the system is already being used by about 60 other labs worldwide and would provide a more meaningful way to gauge performance. He expected lab operations and forensic testing to be fully under the control and oversight of the department within 18 to 24 months.
Houck is scheduled to be back before Wells' committee on April 25 for a budget oversight hearing.