Comments on the White House 2014 report on “Strengthening Forensic Science”

Opinions from a forensic examiner. This material contains excerpts from the WH 2014 Forensic Science Report .  My comments (in bold) are added in certain sections. The Report excerpts are in italics. See the full report here.

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EXECUTIVE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT

NATIONAL SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COUNCIL  (Subcommittee on Forensic Science)

WASHINGTON, D.C. 20502

Published May 2, 2014

Declaration of success

The detailed and comprehensive exploration of modern forensic science embarked on by this Subcommittee has broadened the breadth of foundational knowledge and situational awareness in the agencies, informing a meaningful framework for future analysis and coordination.

Forensic target subject matter

….covering issues relating to laboratory accreditation, certification of forensic science and medicolegal personnel, proficiency testing, and ethics.

Expectations for its use

It is the expectation of the Committee on Science that the material collated here will prove useful to policy makers in government as well as forensic scientists, laboratory managers, and other practitioners working together to strengthen the forensic sciences.

Then mentions the current National Commission on Forensic Science Commission.

The Subcommittee’s findings and work products will inform efforts to enhance future forensic science policy, research, and practice.

Abbreviations

IWG Interagency Working Group: The IWGs were each chartered with distinct objectives, and their deliberative processes included research and analysis into particular issues of impact that could be incorporated into policy proposals.

Body of the WH SoFS Report

1. ACCREDITATION OF FORENSIC SERVICE PROVIDERS (Page 3)

Challenges

Two major challenges to achieving the NAS goal of universal accreditation for forensic science providers are the diversity of disciplines—and, therefore, the diversity of tests—that fall under the general forensic science rubric, and the range of settings in which these services are provided. With regard to the former,

forensic science practitioners have self-organized into more than 20 specific disciplines focused on the analysis of evidence related to firearms, arson, fibers and hairs, impressions, questioned documents, fingerprints, tool marks, and DNA.

One of the biggest hurdles facing the forensic community is identifying providers of forensic  science services outside of the groups named above.

 The NAS report (2009) acknowledged the challenge of identifying these providers, noting that there are insufficient data available on the number and expertise of forensic examiners who are not employed in publicly funded forensic science laboratories.

 Another set of challenges to achieving the NAS report’s accreditation goals relate to the financial and other impacts that accreditation requirements would have on forensic science service providers, medical examiner/coroner offices, and other providers of forensic services……..

 Establishment of the necessary quality management systems can require significant financial and human resources; would have to be achieved in compliance with relevant government policies and regulations relating to purchasing, contracting, hiring, budget cycles, etc.; and could impact the timeliness of services provided during implementation. (i.e. creates backlogs and interruptions , reduction or cancelling of services due to unfavorable costs v benefit ratios).

Footnote 10:  There is insufficient data available to provide the exact number of forensic units.

 Another challenge to implementing the NAS’s accreditation recommendation is that there is no single Federal department, agency, or office that has clear responsibility or control over the relevant issues.

Implementation:

One approach is to work with Congress to pass legislation requiring a broad but well-defined set of forensic science service providers……

 ….craft a uniform law that mandates accreditation, with the goal of getting states to adopt this law across the Nation.

..the Department of Justice to mandate accreditation for all laboratories under its direct control and, for laboratories over which direct control is absent, mandate accreditation as a prerequisite for certain financial and other benefits…… (i.e.,grants, training enticements).

….utilize portions of some or all of the first three approaches in a well-integrated fashion and federal, state and local collaboration. (to fill gaps in this multi-state hegemony).

2. CERTIFICATION OF FORENSIC EXAMINERS (Page 9)

The 2009 NAS report concluded that “certification of forensic science professionals should be mandatory” and recommended that “certification requirements should include, at a minimum, written examinations, supervised practice, proficiency testing, continuing education, recertification procedures, adherence to a code of ethics, and effective disciplinary procedures.”

At some point, “certifying the certifiers,” as does the AAFS’s  “Forensic Science Accreditation Board, needs to be developed and implemented. This SoFS report does list a nearly comprehensive appendix of “mainstream” certifying boards of medical specialties, and boards relating to police sciences and the AAFS. The issue of “self-certifying” needs to be cured within some of these groups. (i.e. the American Board of Forensic Odontology (< 90 members). It should be note that the WH SoFS inquiry to this small group’s scientific assurances of their “science” resulted in a meager and disconnected bibliographic laundry list of case reports.)

Background

Professional certification bodies focused on the forensic sciences have existed for more than 30 years. Forensic science certification bodies typically focus on one or a few related forensic science disciplines, but there is not a certification body or process for every discipline or category of forensic testing.

 …the certification landscape for the forensic sciences is fragmented, with inconsistencies apparent even among certification programs accredited by the same entity….  See Page 9 “Table 1” in full report.

 A significant shortcoming with regard to forensic science certification today is that no fully independent accrediting body (i.e., one that exists outside the field of forensic science itself) exists to assess and, as appropriate, give its imprimatur to worthy forensic science-related specialty boards that confer certification. This supports my opinions on the subject.

Thus the current approach to certification (The AAFS’s FSAB) in the forensic science domain is lacking both in terms of the gaps that exist among some subspecialties  and in terms of the level of independent evaluation of existing processes and programs.

Current Status

….there are approximately 8,700 certified forensic science practitioners. Slightly over 5,500 of these practitioners are associated with digital evidence and photography, many of whom are associated with corporations…….. it also highlights the low number of other, more traditional forensic science practitioners who have achieved this measure of professional standing.

the SoFS deduces that of all forensic science practitioners, perhaps 16 percent to 25 percent are certified and this range drops to approximately 6 percent to 9 percent if those practitioners in digital evidence are removed from the calculations

 Challenges

A [related] challenge is that the development of certification standards and practices (including training and examinations) may not be cost effective or otherwise practical for disciplines in which relatively few practitioners exist.

And determining the number of forensic science practitioners within the broad definitional field that includes those working in public (Federal, state, and local) and private laboratories, as well as consultants and others working in the full range of scientific disciplines, has proven difficult.

While there is a need to resolve this issue, there are few resources available to help make a reliable estimate.

As a related challenge, certification bodies may be called upon to develop a “basic forensic science” certification for practitioners working in disciplines for which no certification program exists. I would make an edit to read: “no scientifically validated certification program exists.”

The time and cost demands posed by multiple certification processes may dissuade some practitioners from qualifying in all the areas in which they currently practice, and could result in a loss of expertise in certain areas.

Provisions may have to be made to accommodate longstanding practitioners who do not meet new certification requirements.

Time-in-service is no guarantee of scientific validity or reliability in any science. I view this as caving –in to practitioner pressure and abdicates forensic responsibilities of protecting the public .

Implementation

The implementation of a universal requirement for certification of forensic science practitioners is an exceedingly complex issue because of the large number of individuals performing such a broad array of duties who would be covered by such a provision. U.S. forensic science service providers and forensic units employ an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 (12)  individuals today, predominately in law enforcement agencies, with most of these individuals providing limited forensic science services and the wide array of other stakeholders, including private entities and government agencies at the local, state, and Federal level.

Footnote 12: There is insufficient data available to provide the exact number of forensic units. This is an estimate based on information obtained from various accrediting bodies, law enforcement agencies and professional organizations. Formal surveys to obtain more exact figures have been initiated, but have not been completed as of this writing.

Congressional action may be required to achieve effectively the NAS goal of universal certification across the forensic sciences. But the development of certification programs need not wait for legislation and could be encouraged by administrative actions aimed at incentivizing progress towards this goal, including provision of grant funding for the development of curricula, training, and testing.

In this Report, the interaction between forensic providers AND the case law events occurring within the criminal justice system (i.e. exoneration cases involving faulty prosecutorial forensic evidence is not considered a determinative factor for these efforts.

Costs

The total cost of achieving universal certification of forensic science service practitioners is very difficult to estimate given the large uncertainties described above, including the number of practitioners that would be captured by any such requirement, the number of certification programs that might need to be developed for disciplines that do not currently have such programs in place, and the costs of achieving compliance…….

The full Report has extensive cost estimates and projections on all of this.

3. CERTIFICATION OF MEDICOLEGAL PERSONNEL (Page 14)

See the full Report.  This area of forensic investigation has formalized very well due to the efforts of the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigation. What is very problematic  is the lack of implementation of standards in training within the United States Coroners systems, both local and state.

4. PROFICIENCY TESTING OF FORENSIC EXAMINERS (Page 19).

The first section praises the benefits of testing personnel regarding accuracy and inter examiner agreement of evidence analysis. The gold standard is obviously the academically developed protocols of DNA analysis. This is contrasted with the next section.

Current status

No national requirement exists today demanding that forensic science service providers participate in proficiency testing, but many do to varying degrees.

5. A NATIONAL CODE OF ETHICS FOR FORENSIC SERVICE PROVIDERS (Page 24).

[The 2009 NAS] report further calls for an exploration of potential enforcement  mechanisms for addressing serious ethical violations.

One approach to achieving this goal, in synchrony with the NAS goals of requiring accreditation and certification of forensics laboratories and service providers, would be for all accreditation and certifying organizations to adopt an agreed-upon National Code of Ethics

The SoFS identified and studied more than 45 codes of ethics in use by various forensic science  organizations.

The SoFS review found one code of ethics that addresses all four of the above assurances and has broad applicability to all forensic science disciplines: the “ASCLD/LAB Guiding Principles of Professional Responsibility for Crime Laboratory and Forensic Scientists” code….

Summary by CMB. The remainder of the report contains over 50 pages of Appendices that contains references, support information on forensic science accreditation agencies, complying and non-complying forensic organizations, and government run laboratories

 

About csidds

Dr. Michael Bowers is a long time forensic consultant in the US and international court systems.
This entry was posted in ABFO, Bitemarks, criminal justice, Forensic Science, forensic science reform, National FOrensic Science Commission and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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