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March 24, 2017

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Study: Separate police, labs because of bias

Subtle biases contaminate forensic findings when scientists answer to cops, researchers find

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Sam Morris

Michael Stypa agitates a vial of blood in a Metro crime lab last week. It would be a big shift to separate such labs from law enforcement, as a study recommends, but that’s exactly what a Henderson crime lab director wants. Autonomy is important, he says, “to demonstrate to ourselves, to ensure, that we don’t have bias, perceived or real.”

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  • Rick Workman, director of the Henderson Police Department crime lab, on how crime lab employees can be influenced.

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  • Workman talks about how he envisions his lab's relationship with police.

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  • Workman on how more distance between the crime lab and police will allow a lab to do a better job.

The National Academy of Sciences spent two years studying the state of forensic science in America. The resulting report, released in February, isn’t pretty.

Forensic science is shoddy, our country’s crime labs are fragmented, forensic scientists aren’t adequately certified and the science of solving crime is dangerously inconsistent — disturbing findings that lead to perhaps the most controversial conclusion in the report: Crime labs need to be independent of law enforcement agencies because forensic scientists who work for police are prone to subtle, contextual bias.

This is different from the egregious cases of forensic investigators allegedly rubber-stamping the work of detectives — as in Los Angeles, where the police department is reviewing hundreds of fingerprint identifications after lab examiners falsely implicated at least two people in crimes.

Contextual bias is more nuanced, brought to light by research such as a 2006 study at University of Southhampton, in the U.K., where academics re-presented fingerprints to examiners who had previously studied them and, with some contextual prodding (such as saying “the suspect has confessed”), prompted the examiners to stray from their original findings.

Of course, these studies are new and far from definitive. That’s what makes the recommendation that labs be separated from police — by a respected organization such as the National Academy of Sciences — a bombshell. Forensic science has risen on the wings of police work. Removing crime labs from law enforcement management would be an utter upheaval.

But in Henderson, one crime lab director is calling for it.

“There’s a perceived and, in some cases, actual bias whenever you have laboratory employees working directly for law enforcement,” said Rick Workman, director of the Henderson Police crime lab. Lab autonomy is critical, Workman says, “to demonstrate to ourselves, to ensure, that we don’t have bias, perceived or real.”

This is a controversial statement, one that any crime lab manager working for a law enforcement agency would have to weigh carefully — calling for autonomy from your boss isn’t easy. It’s a political dance that cuts the other way, as well: Any crime lab director who paints too rosy a picture of his relationship with police could come off as naive, if not complicit. To be fair, Workman, who also spent seven years as a crime scene analyst for Metro, says he has never seen local lab technicians show bias. But even the potential is enough to undermine the credibility of the science.

Bias is not the only reason labs need to be separate from law enforcement, according to the National Academy of Sciences report. It’s also a matter of money. Independent labs, the study states, are free to set their own budget priorities with respect to cases and expenditures. Workman concurs.

“When you are directly under the umbrella of a law enforcement agency, there is competition for funds, training facilities, training,” he said. And what lab director thinks he can ask for another technician, or another wildly expensive piece of equipment, if it means hiring one less officer?

The National Academy of Sciences study, funded by Congress in 2005, is more than 200 pages and makes a dozen major recommendations for forensic reform. These recommendations aren’t binding, but they are being taken seriously. In March, the study was the subject of a Senate Judiciary hearing, where Democrats and Republicans expressed serious concerns and committed to more hearings. And Attorney General Eric Holder and federal law enforcement officials are reviewing the study, according to The New York Times.

Last week Arizona State University held a conference dedicated to the report, and Metro forensic lab director Linda Krueger was there.

Krueger, like Workman, is a civilian specialist who ultimately answers to a police boss. But unlike Workman, she doesn’t think crime labs must be separated from law enforcement oversight. For starters, she thinks it would be fiscally impossible, in this economy, to sever her department from Metro and have it stand alone.

Workman disagrees. He says autonomy is a matter of shifting government money from police hands to lab control, making a crime lab no different from, say, a parks department. He thinks severing labs from law enforcement is actually the easiest recommendation to accomplish, but the most difficult for people to envision.

The National Academy of Sciences study recommends that Congress fund a new federal entity to oversee forensic science research. This also gives Krueger concern. Forensic science is fragmented, she acknowledges, without centralized accreditation bodies, or even a national set of best practices and standards, but she doubts a new federal entity to oversee hundreds of newly independent labs would work.

“How could the federal government’s long arm reach from D.C. to Vegas to tell us how to run this lab?” she said. “It would be weighted down in bureaucracy.”

The Justice Department has historically been the nation’s central forensic research agency. Creating a new agency to replace it is a large-scale version of what the report recommends at a local level: removing labs from law enforcement control.

At its heart, this is a question of how forensic science and law enforcement intersect. These are fields governed by entirely different rules and regulations. Science, for example, cannot be rushed. Lab work must be methodical and absent presupposition. Police investigations, on the other hand, are often a matter of speed and hunches. Where science seeks absolute certainty, policing stops at beyond a reasonable doubt. Science demands peer review and critical scrutiny. Police tend to bristle at outside review and circle the wagons.

The fundamental goals of the two fields are totally different and totally intertwined. By making the labs independent, the National Academy of Sciences report states, “cultural pressures caused by the different missions of scientific laboratories vis-a-vis law enforcement agencies would be largely resolved.”

At some labs, Krueger says, these cultural pressures do present a problem — but not at Metro’s. The national report is necessarily broad, she says, lumping huge modern labs with smaller operations that aren’t, as in the case of Metro’s, tasked with forensic examinations for half of a crime-ridden state.

“I think you can have autonomy within a police agency,” she said.

In reality, it’s Workman with the dog in this fight. Since 2005, he has worked to fund and launch a public forensic science center in Henderson. His goal is the creation of a 77,000-square-foot facility that would augment Metro’s lab and offer forensic services that currently must be done out of state. The cost of this public project: A cool $37 million. Workman hopes private donations can cover the bill. He’d be happy to see his center be run by government. He’s not looking to turn a profit. But absent a huge federal grant, Workman said, courting private dollars was the only feasible option — and this was before the economy turned sour. He’s nowhere near his goal, but he’s feeling bolstered by the National Academy of Sciences report, which endorses his dream: an independent crime lab that answers to the people.

“There is a compelling need (for autonomy),” he said. “Eventually it has to happen.”

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