Las Vegas Sun

August 25, 2019

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Spokesman: Metro capable of running its own crime lab

Lab staffed by civilians, allowing for autonomy and scientific independence, police spokesman says

A Metro Police spokesman today defended the agency's ability to run its own crime lab, rejecting the National Academy of Sciences' recommendation that forensic labs should be administered independently of law enforcement to reduce potential bias against criminal suspects.

In response to questions from the Sun, Officer Bill Cassell said the assumption that an outside laboratory can exhibit a greater degree of independence than the Metro lab "is based on perception more than actual experience."

In responses via email, Cassell described Metro as a leader in effective independent forensic science within law enforcement. As he noted, the lab itself is staffed entirely by civilians with forensic science backgrounds, including analysts with college degrees in biology or chemistry. The lab's executive director reports to another civilian who runs Metro's Criminalistics Bureau, and the bureau head also reports to a civilian division director.

"It is only at this level where Metro-commissioned personnel become part of the chain of command, with the division director reporting directly to the assistant sheriff," Cassell said. "This unique structure allows the laboratory to maintain both autonomy and scientific independence, while still providing ultimate accountability to the citizens of Clark County through the elected office of the sheriff."

Metro recently revealed that its lab mishandled DNA evidence in a way that led to the wrong man, Dwayne Jackson, spending four years in prison for a 2001 robbery in the southwest valley he didn't commit. Metro also announced that it would investigate more than 200 other cases handled by forensic scientist Terry Cook, who was placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the probe.

The science academy made its recommendation to Congress in 2009 following a series of high-profile scandals nationwide in which individuals, including some on death row, were erroneously convicted based on faulty police lab work.

But Cassell said: "Law enforcement agencies and their sensitive investigations require a complicated mixture of both openness and absolute confidentiality. This balance is best struck by keeping those who conduct the components of those investigations within law enforcement.

"The required levels of openness, transparency, confidentiality and accountability exhibited by all components of Metro cannot be guaranteed outside our department. With millions of dollars of contracts and profit at stake, the concept of a private 'for profit' contractor publicly acknowledging a major error, and openly pursuing corrective actions, cannot be assured by those who may contract for their product or services."

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