‘Crucial question’ in DC’s crime lab overhaul debate

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More than a year after the DC Crime Lab lost its accreditation, shutting down its ability to conduct forensic cases on evidence collected from crime scenes across the city, the DC Council is debating legislation to to revamp the laboratory, including qualifications for the leadership of the agency.

Should the head of DC’s forensic lab be a scientist? And should he or she report directly to the DC Council rather than the mayor?

More than a year after the DC Department of Forensic Sciences lost its accreditation, shutting down its ability to conduct forensic investigations of evidence collected from crime scenes across the city, the DC Council is debating legislation aimed at revamping the laboratory, including the qualifications of the agency’s management.

The Restoring Trust and Credibility in Forensic Science Amendment Act, introduced earlier this month by DC Ward 6 Council Member Charles Allen, would allow a non-scientist with a significant management experience and a background in business or law to run the troubled lab. It would also create a new position of mayor-appointed director of forensic science at the lab as number 2 in the agency.

The bill also aims to improve lab oversight by empowering an external committee of scientific experts to advise lab management on handling complaints of misconduct, negligence and testing errors.

Most witnesses who testified at a public hearing on the bill Thursday — including officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office and the Public Defense Service — broadly agreed with the statements. objectives of the bill, but called for specific changes.

Debate has also emerged over whether the lab, which would be renamed the Forensic Science and Public Health Laboratory and be reconstituted as an independent agency, should continue to report to the mayor or directly to the DC Council. .

The bill already has the support of 10 council members.

“From a legislative perspective, as we look at what reforms are needed, there is a real urgency to get things done,” Allen said, adding that “the urgency is real.” He said he was still grappling with many of the finer points of the bill, but said a vote on the measure would likely come in the fall.



“I don’t think one audience is enough”

The hearing on the bill comes after two tumultuous years for the forensic agency.

A team of experts hired by federal prosecutors and the Attorney General’s Office to audit the lab in 2020 revealed that lab officials concealed conflicting findings in an ongoing murder case from prosecutors and the Credentials Board of the laboratory.

Last year, the council withdrew the lab’s accreditation to perform medical-legal records; the agency’s director resigned and another report, commissioned by DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, recommended re-examining every case involving fingerprints and firearms processed by the lab since its inception.

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart, who has largely declined to comment on the details of the proposed bill, said Thursday he thought more hearings were needed.

“I don’t think one audience is enough,” he said. “I think we need to have a lot more conversations about where this is going to end.”

Allen countered that the committee had held five public hearings into forensic lab failures in the past year and a half, and that Thursday’s public hearing was the place to discuss the bill.

“Everyone came up with recommendations to say, ‘I like this part. I don’t like this part. Here is a recommendation; here is a possible amendment,” Allen said.

The deputy mayor said officials in the mayor’s office “racked their brains and looked at this and came up with different suggestions and alternatives.” But he did not mention it during the hearing.

“There are areas where, do we have a position? Yeah.” said Geldard. “Am I ready to say, ‘That must be it?’ No, because we have too many stakeholders involved in this.

Slow start to post-conviction review

Separately, Geldart told council members that post-conviction review of past cases involving fingerprints and firearms processed by the lab over the past 10 years had barely begun.

Since the order initiating the review was issued by Bowser in December, there have been only a few meetings between Geldart’s office, federal prosecutors and the Public Defender Service. Lawyers negotiated how the review will be conducted, and the district ultimately intends to hire an independent panel to carry it out. But the next meeting has yet to be scheduled — Geldart said the summer is a hard time to find to meet — and he said he doesn’t believe the actual contract for conducting the exam would go until early fall.

He did not provide an estimate of the costs of the review.

Regarding the proposed legislative overhaul, Geldart said Bowser was “open” to making the crime lab an independent agency, but said the “critical question” that needed to be answered was: “Who oversees this lab? Who will he report to?”

Report to Council?

Jose Marrero, deputy head of the criminal section of the attorney general’s office, said making the lab an independent entity — rather than a “subordinate agency,” as it is currently constituted — would shift the lab from the jurisdiction of the mayor to that of the DC Council.

“Essentially, that means the lab director would report to council rather than the mayor,” Marrero said of the move. “The lab would be empowered to seek the funds it needs directly from the council.”

Marrero said the systemic issues at the lab were long-standing and “have been allowed to get worse and worse for years,” and that when his office and prosecutors sought to raise concerns, they “have been repeatedly dismissed and downplayed”.

He added, “It is imperative that the new lab director be able to assess and report on what he finds in the lab and what will be needed to address it with candor. The only way to do this is to allow the director of the lab to report to the board and only allow the director to be removed for cause.

face of the agency

Current legislation governing the laboratory requires the director to have an advanced science degree and training in forensic science.

But Allen pointed to the lab’s past experiences suggesting changes might be needed.

“We had very good scientists leading DFS, but very poor managers — and that directly led to the failures that we saw,” Allen said. “We saw someone who was an absolutely capable scientist, but a poor manager who made bad decisions and compromised the integrity” of the lab.

The changes proposed by the bill would make the agency’s current acting director, Anthony Crispino, who has a law degree and experience managing other DC agencies, eligible to take on the permanent position.

James Carroll, a firearms expert and deputy director of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department crime lab, who was one of the experts retained by prosecutors who first sounded the alarm about problems at the laboratory, recommended that a scientist continue to be needed to run the laboratory. , assisted by a chief of staff with management experience – possibly in DC government.

“I think it’s best for a scientist to be the head of the lab, the face of the lab, because I think it’s important, at the end of the day, that you project that science – good science, a reliable science – is the most important thing that comes out of this lab.

Marrero said he was unaware of any other crime lab currently run by a non-scientist. “And I think putting a lawyer or a businessman in the person who has experience in those two areas, heading the lab can also potentially discourage talented scientists from applying to that lab,” he said. -he declares.

Supervisory Board

Witnesses also debated on Thursday the composition of a nine-member group of outside scientific experts who advise the lab’s management, known as the Scientific Advisory Board.

The bill plans to rename it the Scientific Advisory and Review Board, add two members, and make the board responsible for investigating all complaints of errors and misconduct — eliminating lab management from the process entirely. .

“The impetus for this is well thought out. DFS has not carried out this responsibility at all,” said Marrero, of the attorney general’s office. But he said the more robust review board could amount to outsourcing much of the quality assurance process from the lab to the group of part-time volunteer external experts.

“While external oversight is essential, it cannot come at the expense of ensuring that there are effective leaders and a strong quality assurance program in the lab,” he said.

Instead, the board should retain more of an oversight role, responsible for checking how the lab responds internally to testing errors and other issues and, when significant issues arise, intervening. and investigate.

“At the end of the day, there’s not much the legislation can do,” testified Carroll, a member of the prosecutors’ audit team. “It is essential that the right people are installed in key management positions in the laboratory. A poor lab structure with strong people can be successful; a great lab structure with the wrong people can fail.

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