D.C.’s new forensics lab not living up to expectations

Consolidation has hitches

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Five months after the District opened a $220 million, state-of-the-art forensics laboratory hailed as an experimental transition to independent forensics testing, the crime-scene investigation unit has unraveled as a result of dysfunction and bureaucratic gridlock, according to the Fraternal Order of Police and veteran officers who process crime scenes.

Staff shortages, lack of basic resources and stalled labor negotiations are threatening the operations of a unit critical to police work and criminal justice, these sources say, and figures to be a topic of discussion Wednesday when the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety holds an oversight hearing.

For years, the District outsourced its forensics work, including drug and DNA analysis, but with the opening in October of the world-class, 351,000-square-foot Consolidated Forensics Laboratory, the expectation was that the District was developing a national model that consolidates several agencies under the direction of Max Houck, director of the Department of Forensic Services, who reports directly to Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

The idea was to relocate various forensic functions by merging the Metropolitan Police Department’s Forensics Lab, the D.C. Public Health Lab and the office of the chief medical examiner into one building, and by transitioning those functions away from sworn D.C. police officers who process crime scenes and to civilian scientists who no longer report to the chief of police.

But the crime-scene processing component of the new department, formerly the province of the Forensic Science Services Division, reportedly is suffering from department leaders’ failure to hire civilian replacements, come to terms with the police union through collective bargaining, and allocate basic resources within the gleaming new unit.

“The lab is not doing what it is supposed to do,” said Fraternal Order of Police President Kristopher Baumann, pointing to inexperienced officers dispatched to violent crime scenes and the continued use of outdated techniques such as fingerprint powder rather than state-of-the-art dyes and chemicals that characterize modern advancements in forensic technology.

Mr. Baumann also reported running into a stone wall in dealing with the Gray administration on labor issues, and it continues to press forward with an unfair-labor-practices grievance he filed last year when the reorganization was announced.

“We have not met [with the Gray administration], there is no plan in place [for the transition] and no labor agreement” to facilitate crime scene investigations, he said.

The Forensic Science Services Division once had at least 80 sworn officers who had undergone special training in the art of crime scene investigation, according to veterans of that unit. Those officers were divided into a crime scene search team responsible for processing less-serious crimes such as burglary and auto theft, and a 35-member mobile crime scene unit that handled investigations of murders, rapes and other serious violent crimes.

But since the creation of the new forensics department, which disbanded the more-seasoned mobile crime scene unit, approximately 23 of the 80 officers were detailed back to police districts, where they continue to process less-serious crime scenes, veteran officers say. That left 50 to 60 officers commingled to share a full range of duties under the purview of the Crime Scene Investigations Division — sometimes with bad outcomes, according to veteran officers.

In one case — a burglary, stabbing and sexual assault in the 5th District in November — former members of the mobile unit were called upon to reprocess the scene after it reportedly was mishandled by the crime-scene search team.

“We’re hearing that internal operations are not being handled in a professional manner,” Mr. Baumann said, adding that his group’s safety committee is in the process of documenting individual breaches of protocol. “There have been incidents where weapons were found and no one was available to conduct the proper recovery procedures.”

Meantime, Mr. Baumann said, no civilians have been brought in to replace the 23 officers who were detailed back to patrol districts, experienced officers are asking for transfers away from the crime-scene division, and basic resources such as copiers and printers are hard to come by.

The Gray administration did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Keith Williams, commanding officer of the crime-scene investigations division. But in January, in an interview with Legal Times, Mr. Houck, the director of the newly consolidated department, downplayed start-up issues as “a few bumps here and there.”

“[In] general things are moving along quite well,” he told Legal Times. “It’s been, at times, frustrating of course because it’s new and we’re trying to coordinate different groups that haven’t been together before.

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