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accreditation will doom forensic science.
December 20, 2007 by Crime Lab Report
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version of this month's editorial.
laboratory directors don't recapture their vision for a unified and cohesive
system of accreditation, the integrity and effectiveness of our country's
criminal justice system will suffer horribly.
Twenty-five years of progress is being threatened by a dangerous fracture that has developed in the
profession and is being pried open with bad information and the absence of community
The ending to this strange
story has yet to be written. But to fully understand the significance
and history of the issues in this matter, our readers will benefit from a
look back at how forensic-science accreditation came about and why it must
be saved from the clutches of a renegade philosophy that doesn't seem to
concern itself with the long-term good of the profession.
The Birth of Forensic
Forensic Science as we know it has been practiced in North
America for nearly a century, but the application of
today's more reliable quality-assurance strategies is a relatively new
trend that came about thanks to accreditation.
In the early 1970s, prior to accreditation, disturbing problems in some of America's crime
laboratories were exposed by a voluntary proficiency testing study conducted by the Forensic Science Foundation with support from the Law Enforcement
Assistance Administration (LEAA). National news organizations soon caught
word of the findings, which eventually made headlines throughout the
At about the same time, FBI Director Clarence Kelley,
joined by FBI Laboratory Director Briggs White, was in the process of organizing a group of crime laboratory
directors that eventually became known as the American Society of Crime
Laboratory Directors, or ASCLD. One of ASCLD’s earliest committees was the
Committee on Laboratory Evaluation and Standards. Its objective
was to improve the tarnished image of the nation’s crime labs by
developing quality assurance standards to which they could
voluntarily demonstrate conformance through rigorous external scrutiny. The committee refined its recommendations based on
input from the ASCLD membership. In 1981 the ASCLD / Laboratory
Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) was formed.
By 1984, the number of accredited laboratories reached the
prescribed threshold required by the
organization’s bylaws to form an assembly of delegates that could democratically
govern the new accreditation program.
officially incorporated as a not-for-profit organization in 1988. As the number of accredited laboratories
continued to grow, crime labs in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand,
would eventually join with their American counterparts in supporting the
system that continues today.
movement hit a road bump in 1994 with federal passage of The DNA Identification Act.
established a powerful DNA Advisory Board (DAB) to develop and enforce quality assurance
standards for crime laboratories wishing to access the national database of DNA profiles maintained by the FBI. The
DAB recommended that crime labs seek accreditation “with all deliberate
policies and procedures would not allow accreditation to be awarded to a single work unit, laboratories that were not prepared to undergo a
full ASCLD/LAB accreditation assessment seemed to have no other alternative
but to forfeit access to the DNA database until they were ready for a full
In 1995, a new organization
called the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) was
formed by the executive board of ASCLD with the approval and support
of the ASCLD membership. The purpose of this private not-for-profit
corporation, as defined in its Articles of Incorporation, was
for training, education, certification, and the support of accreditation. In a letter to FBI
Director Louis Freeh, Florida Congressman Bill Young urged that NFSTC
“would fulfill a national need to disseminate forensic information, provide
forensic training and education in the latest techniques and technologies,
focus applied forensic research, and provide for the continued development
and implementation of forensic standards.”
To this day, NFSTC
continues to be a valuable resource for forensic science laboratories
throughout the United States.
The creation of NFSTC, however, also presented an opportunity to reconcile the DNA dilemma. First,
support and assist crime laboratories preparing for a full ASCLD/LAB
accreditation inspection. Second, NFSTC could audit and temporarily certify DNA
units that complied with DNA-specific quality assurance standards, thereby satisfying
the requirements of the DAB. It seemed like the perfect solution to a
nagging problem that many crime laboratories were trying desperately to
resolve. It also provided one more opportunity for NFSTC to
secure a future for itself by gaining favor with government crime
laboratories in the U.S.
In order to alleviate
concerns that the young and struggling NFSTC might be tempted to
develop a competing accreditation program of its own, a memorandum of understanding was signed by
NFSTC Executive Director Bill Tilstone and ASCLD/LAB Chair Jo Ann Given in
1997. In this agreement, NFSTC promised to abide by the following conditions:
1. NFSTC would not initiate the
process unless the applicant laboratory had first given a written commitment
to seek full ASCLD/LAB accreditation within three years of the
2. NFSTC would not re-inspect or re-issue a certification to any laboratory
that had not formally applied for ASCLD/LAB accreditation within three
years of the date of its first certification by NFSTC.
Clearly, this was a no-competition agreement that seemed to preserve
the original vision of a strong and united system of accreditation.
Mixed Messages and
A peculiar thing happened in 2000 when NFSTC went forward with the development
accreditation program for
the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), which
based on the new ISO 17025 international standard for testing and
calibration laboratories. When ASCLD/LAB
complained that this was an apparent breach of their agreement, NFSTC
President Michael Sheppo argued in a letter to ASCLD/LAB that “NFSTC would not have
responded to the GBI if ASCLD/LAB were ISO 17025 compliant and will not
offer ISO 17025 accreditation to any public crime laboratory in the U.S.
once the ASCLD/LAB program achieves that standing.”
To further complicate the
understanding of NFSTC's business motives, NFSTC announced in 2001 that part of
lucrative agreement with the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) would be to
assist laboratories seeking to earn accreditation through the ASCLD/LAB program.
Astonishingly, with the GBI
project slated to move forward, NFSTC had now
committed itself to both supporting and competing against ASCLD/LAB.
Why the National Institute of Justice allowed itself to be a party to such
an obvious conflict may warrant scrutiny of its own. But for now it
is clear that NFSTC and NIJ were leaving many to scratch their
heads in wonder of how these events would all play out.
They had their answer on
January 1, 2004 when NFSTC spun-off its accreditation services to
form a new independent accreditation corporation called Forensic Quality Services,
or FQS. FQS had previously operated as a separate business unit
within NFSTC so as to divorce NFSTC's federal funding from its
cost-recovery activities. In a decision that some observers argued was a blatant disregard of previous
agreements, NFSTC had created a direct competitor to ASCLD/LAB and
a second accreditation service in the forensic science community.
quick to rationalize the tactics of its parent organization by claiming that it was not NFSTC but ASCLD/LAB
delayed entry into the ISO
accreditation market that created the competition. In fact, FQS
now bills itself as the "country's longest established provider of ISO
accreditation to forensic science testing laboratories in the U.S."
The facts, however, paint a more accurate picture.
The majority of nationally recognized accreditation programs
in the sciences and other professional arenas are generally developed, governed, and
operated by authoritative professional communities.
deliberate and slower transition to ISO 17025 began well
before FQS entered the market, allowing the pace to be
dictated by the forensic-science management community. By
keeping the community together, earning its stamp of approval, and leveraging the power of its
collective wisdom, the ASCLD/LAB International program now carries a
degree of legitimacy that is more in keeping with the original concept of a
unified accreditation system.
ASCLD/LAB has now accredited
under its International program in addition to the 277
laboratories accredited under the original Legacy program.
on the other hand, has
accredited just over 50 laboratories. But since FQS allows forensic
laboratories to "customize" their accreditation by phasing in one discipline
at a time, many of their client labs are only accredited in one or two
The Detroit Police Department,
for example, is listed by FQS as one of its accredited laboratories.
But when Crime Lab Report studied Detroit's scope document, we
learned that the laboratory is only accredited in one work unit: biology.
What about ballistics? What about fingerprints? Should any
lab be called accredited when not all of its primary disciplines are included
in the scope of the assessment? We don't think so.
A Dangerous and Intolerable
Crime Lab Report believes that marketplace competition will eventually
destroy forensic science accreditation. By definition, no two
professional services are the same. So the very existence of multiple
accreditation programs invites the reasonable assumption that one must be better than the others.
And if the community of forensic science managers is to be entrusted with the governance of such a
critical profession, why would inferior programs be allowed to exist at all?
Don't the safety of the public and the rights of defendants deserve only
Of course they do. And only
the best they
Unfortunately, the community of
crime laboratory directors has been largely deprived of the opportunity to deliberate and
speak authoritatively about the repercussions of multiple accrediting
bodies in forensic science. And to make matters worse, accreditation decisions are now more likely to
be influenced and disrupted by apathetic
procurement officials who argue that the existence of competition obligates
crime laboratories to publicly solicit bids for accreditation.
This cannot be tolerated.
Forcing accrediting bodies to
compete on the basis of up-front cost estimates creates a dangerous conflict of interest by tempting bidders to
scale-down the scope and/or intensity of an inspection in order to maximize
the recovery of costs or avoid monetary losses. Until an accreditation
process begins, there is simply no way to project how much time or manpower will be
needed to properly complete the project. So how can an accrediting
body be expected to submit a responsive bid?
FQS has insisted
that “best practices in public procurement would seem to require that a
fair, competitive bidding process be used to determine the 'best value'
provider of accreditation for a public crime laboratory.” FQS also
in its March 2007 newsletter that it "supports the general principle that fair and open competition results
in driving quality up and costs down, and that the forensic science community
benefits as bidders work to meet the requirements of the customer in the
most cost-effective way that they can.”
Wait a second. Would
the work-quality of two competing auto-mechanics improve if they were forced
to give estimates without having the opportunity to examine the cars first?
Absolutely not. Costs
would rise as both mechanics inflate their estimates to protect
themselves from unforeseen complications.
Then, quality would
decrease when the less competitive mechanic realizes he can stay afloat a
bit longer by cutting a few corners and using cheaper parts. Sure, market
forces may eventually drive consumers away from the bad mechanic, but by
that point the damage has been done.
If we were talking about the
purchase of a car, Crime Lab Report would agree with FQS's
position on competition in the marketplace, but we're not. We are
talking about a critical professional service where the qualifications,
reputation, and community-backing of the provider can have a direct impact
on the effectiveness and reliability of our criminal justice system.
ASCLD/LAB clearly recognized
this when it made the following announcement in May of 2007:
“Laboratories should be free to select an
accrediting body that best serves their needs....You may be assured that if a laboratory makes it clear which
accrediting body they have selected, ASCLD/LAB will not interfere by making
appeals to higher authorities within the agency. Selecting an accrediting
body is a most important decision for you and your laboratory and you should
not be subjected to outside interference.”
Accreditation Must be
Owned by the Community
Years ago, the community of crime laboratory directors designed and
implemented a unified program of accreditation that allows participants to
seek election to an executive board of directors that includes a diversity
of talent and perspectives.
Through this democratic and competitive process, new ideas and improved standards can be
brought forward for consideration and incorporation into the program.
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Letters to the Editors
MARYLAND FINGERPRINT RULING: Our coverage of the controversial fingerprint ruling in
Maryland drew several interesting comments. Here are just a few.
Jay Siegel, Ph.D., Director of the Forensic and Investigative Science
Program, Indiana University / Purdue University at Indianapolis
Crime Lab Report misses the point of
the judge’s ruling. The point is that fingerprint examinations are entirely
subjective. The underlying scientific principle, that all fingerprints are
measurably, demonstrably different is unproven and no amount of case work
will prove it. Case work is not set up to test this principle. The FBI’s
problem in the Mayfield case was not error rates, it was more culture and
observer bias. Each successive examiner knew what the previous examiner had
found. No one that I know suggests that DNA probabilities are error rates.
You are correct that fingerprint
“science” has a PR problem. When the FBI sends in an examiner who states
that fingerprint ID is infallible and there is 0% error rate, that is a
problem. I think that the judge’s opinion was reasonable given the evidence
she had. The fingerprint community must get away from the idea that no
errors are ever made with fingerprint IDs and start doing the research that
would verify (or not) the underlying principle. Research must continue that
would make this analysis less subjective.
Patrick N. Collier
UAS Security Products Corp
been pointed out, nothing is ever perfect in nature. Errors are seen
all of the time.
problem to be considered is the media's approach to things that are
attention-getting without any study or consideration for the impact of
their reporting. They prosper by bringing to the public attention any
question of impropriety on the part of law enforcement.
Ray Wickenheiser, Consultant
Forensic Consulting, Irvine, TX
Thank-you for a
well reasoned editorial and very pertinent background information surrounding
the Mayfield and Rose cases. Even the most perfect science, when placed in
human hands, must be practiced with care. Accreditation and all of the quality
assurance checks and balances that come with it are forensic scientists' best
response when faced with the "throw the baby out with the bathwater" approach
posited by the defense. The favored approach by forensic scientists should
include some humility in even the most straightforward examinations. While
the science is sound, care and attention must be practiced to ensure the outcome
Forensic Science in the
December 9, 2007
A bipartisan study panel for the Georgia
House of Representatives has proposed legislation, which if passed, would
require minimum procedures for improving the accuracy of witness
December 8, 2007
The Yakima Police Department will open a
new state-of-the-art crime laboratory thanks to a sales tax increase. The
new laboratory will be approximately five times larger than the existing
December 7, 2007
The Texas Chapter for the Innocence
Project will be assisting lawyers in the review of 180 serology cases worked by
the embattled Houston PD Crime Laboratory. Students will be assigned to
provide assistance during the review.
December 4, 2007
The Inspector General for the state of
New York has issued a report that closes a seven-month investigation into
allegations that chemists reported results for drug cases that were not
analyzed, or not sufficiently analyzed - a practice called dry-labbing. A
former NYPD lab director faces possible criminal charges for allegedly
covering-up the scandal. The state's Inspector General has recommended
that the Queens District Attorney file charges against W. Mark Dale, who is no
longer employed by NYPD.
December 2, 2007
Members of a task force created by
Governor Bill Ritter announced that it will recommend new legislation to
establish evidence collection and preservation procedures for biological
evidence in major felony crimes.
November 17, 2007
A new book titled Beating the Devil's Game showcases the history of
forensic science. Author Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., explores the inside
world of this fascinating profession in an uncomplicated and clear style that is
easy to understand.
November 17, 2007
A new crime laboratory for the District of Columbia is scheduled to open in
2011. The total project cost is expected to reach $219 million. Mayor
Adrian Fenty will ask the federal government for $31million to close a funding
November 9, 2007
Prosecutors have declined to charge Ann Marie Gordon, a toxicology lab manager,
for falsely certifying quality-assurance samples used in DUI tests. Gordon
resigned her position in July.
The claim that marketplace competition is necessary for
improvement and should trump the collective wisdom and guidance of the very community
that gave birth to accreditation is irresponsible.
We also take issue with the supporters of competition
that have argued that the relatively new
international ISO 17025
standard is an equalizer that relegates accreditation to a kind of commodity
that is indistinguishable from provider to provider.
incorrect for two important reasons.
First, accreditation is not a
commodity; it is a lifeline that adds a layer of security to protect
the public and its justice institutions from sloppy science and misplaced
methods. Second, ISO 17025 is not a standard that is specific to
forensic science. It is for evaluating the operations of all kinds of testing and calibration laboratories
throughout the world. Without supplemental standards to "amplify"
it, ISO 17025
would fail to encompass all of the critical functions that crime
laboratories monitor on a daily basis.
Accreditation Must be Enforced by the Community
Crime Lab Report is genuinely troubled by how the
forensic science community has been forced to accept competing accreditation
programs without having the opportunity to weigh in on it. In science,
the community rules. Steam-roller tactics that alienate the community
should be dealt with by leaders who are bound to protect and preserve that
community. Much more could have been done - and should have been done - to prevent a
small group of individuals from unilaterally altering the landscape of forensic science.
We also reject the
notion that crime laboratories should be allowed to seek "partial"
accreditation or take advantage of their procurement procedures to
negotiate customized terms of accreditation that were never approved by a
consensus of the forensic-science-management community. Parameters such as
the length of the accreditation cycle, the duration of the assessment, the
number of assessors, and the manner in which the assessment is conducted
should never be negotiated. They should be standardized.
accreditation is not accreditation. If important standards, policies,
and practices are allowed to flex at the pleasure of each crime laboratory
seeking accreditation, there will be nothing left for the forensic science
community to present as proof that it is capable of governing itself.
Then, it will only be a matter of time before legislatures impose their
own brand of bureaucratic control.
A true and effective accreditation program forces
crime laboratories to subordinate themselves to the standards and scrutiny
of the forensic science community - not the other way around. Egotists
in the profession who cringe at the thought of subjecting themselves to this
kind of "indignity" should either join and converse with their more
fair-minded colleagues or find another line of work.
assessment must always be a thorough and rigorous examination of a laboratory's
entire operation, and it must be conducted under the watch and authority of
a united professional community. This is the only way to ensure that
accreditation is awarded by the most qualified, reputable, and
reliable body available.
ASCLD/LAB is the
singular accreditation authority conceived, established, and governed by the
forensic science management community in the United States. There is
no other. Its purpose is to continually improve the quality
of forensic science and must be vigilantly protected. Conflicts of
interest and subversive tactics that bypass the scrutiny of such a highly
respected group of professionals will quickly erode the confidence that people have in the ability of accreditation to
govern the profession.
Settling for less is not just a
bad value - it is bad business.
here if you would like to respond to
this commentary. We welcome opposing viewpoints.
ACCREDITATION PROCUREMENT TIPS
If any crime laboratory finds
itself being harassed in its attempt to make a sole-source accreditation selection, we
would like to know about it immediately.
Our extensive research for
this month's editorial revealed that it is highly appropriate for crime
labs to utilize a sole-source selection process when preparing for
accreditation. By definition, no two professional services are the
same. As long as a crime laboratory is able to document and explain
this effectively for its procurement representatives, there should be no
fall-out from the process.
Federal Acquisition Regulation, FAR 6.302, seven exceptions can be used to
justify a sole-source procurement:
1. There is only one responsible source and no
other services will satisfy agency requirements
2. There is an unusual or compelling urgency
3. The vendor provides certain engineering or expert services
4. The selection is related to an international agreement
5. The product or service is required by statute
6. The selection is in the interest of
7. The selection is in the
Exceptions 1, 3, and 7 apply to forensic science accreditation and can be used
easily to justify sole-source selection.
But if a laboratory finds itself being forced by its parent agency to publicly solicit
bids or proposals for accreditation services, Crime Lab Report urges laboratory administrators to utilize the
increasingly popular Qualification-Based Selection (QBS) process.
What is Qualification
was originally established by the Congress of the United States to evaluate engineering and
architectural services for federally funded construction projects. A growing
number of states continue to embrace this concept and apply it to many professional services
where quality and value are critical. Courts have also ruled that when
certain professional or scientific credentials are needed to produce a
desired level of quality, QBS is superior to the traditional bidding process.
During the QBS process, accrediting bodies should not be asked to submit
cost estimates due the conflict of interest that this creates.
Evaluate reputation and qualifications; and remember, the process is not
supposed to be easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is.
you safe and happy holidays.
Our editorial board would
like to wish our readers a very safe and happy holiday season. We are
grateful for the overwhelming support and encouragement that we have
received over the last several months. Our goal is to continue to
improve our service so that our readers can stay informed and engaged.
We look forward to more success in 2008.