Will the Nation’s Newest Crime Labs Avoid the Troubles Faced by Some Labs in 2013?

2013 was marked by experiences at opposite ends of the spectrum for the nation’s crime labs.

Multiple jurisdictions – including Kansas City, Nashville, Mississippi, and Washington DC – have built new crime labs. Many of these have state of the art technology and facilities. Still other jurisdictions, such as Cincinnati and Memphis, are seeking responsible solutions for much needed improvements in their crime lab facilities. This signifies that communities across the country consider these labs and services to be a priority even in these fiscally constrained times.

On the other hand, 2013 also included numerous instances of labs either being under suspicion of having or being found to have a variety of significant problems. In perhaps the most notorious case, a former Massachusetts state crime-lab chemist who falsified test results in criminal cases was sentenced to three to five years in prison in November, leaving tens of thousands of cases in jeopardy. A criminal probe of the Alaska state crime lab is underway due to the identification of irregularities in the reference samples used for drug tests (no employees have been implicated at this time). A judge in Arizona tossed evidence used in DUI cases when equipment was found to be unreliable; the lab staff allegedly spoke openly about the issues and used the equipment anyway. A variety of ethical lapses, including bias for the prosecution and inadequate training, have been alleged in the Colorado crime lab.

Certainly there are many, many more labs with professional staffs that in fact operate under the highest professional standards. As of the beginning of this year, over 400 labs had been accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors.

But how can these kinds of problems be avoided? Fundamentally it’s a people issue. Policies, procedures, and standards – including accreditation of the lab – are important but only matter if people follow them. Qualified, ethical people need to be hired and compensated with competitive salaries and benefits. Personnel need to have adequate training and resources to do their jobs effectively. There needs to be a culture of professionalism that supports doing the right thing.

Here’s hoping that 2014 will bring news stories of the successes experienced by the new labs and other labs across the country. New facilities are a wonderful thing – if they have the people to make the most of them.