The interim director of the District’s Department of Forensic Sciences says it could cost up to $800 per case to outsource DNA testing after a national accreditation board ordered the city’s crime lab to stop in-house testing.
Monday was Roger Mitchell Jr.’s second full day on the job as the department’s interim director following the dismissal of four high-ranking officials in the wake of a critical audit. He spent much of the day answering questions about the lab’s abilities before a D.C. Council committee.
Last week, a national accreditation board that oversees forensic laboratories ordered the District to suspend in-house DNA testing at its crime lab after an audit that found staff lacked training and were using inadequate procedures. The problems documented in the audit center on testing of DNA “mixtures” that come from more than one person.
In the wake of the audit, department Director Max Houck resigned, and the lab’s chief scientist, senior manager for DNA testing, and the department’s general counsel were all fired.
“Like any department that sees departures and has been in the news under these types of circumstances, you could imagine that morale is not the highest that it could possibly be,” Mr. Mitchell said Monday as he testified before the Committee on the Judiciary.
Mr. Mitchell said the District is negotiating a contract with Bode Technologies, a company based in Lorton, Virginia, to handle outsourced testing as well as consult the crime lab on steps to address the problems highlighted in the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board audit.
When the city has contracted with the company on a case-by-case basis in the past, it has cost $800 per DNA case, but the city hopes to bring the cost down through a contract that encompasses a wider scope of work, Mr. Mitchell said.
City officials have estimated that it could cost between $800,000 and $1 million to outsource the crime lab’s DNA work and hire consultants to help with training and rewriting procedure guidelines.
The audit ordered the lab to draft a plan outlining how it would address the major deficiencies found, including a lack of staff training and the use of inadequate procedures, within 30 days.
Mr. Mitchell said work with a consultant from Bode Technologies would begin Tuesday, and he voiced confidence that the department would be able to respond within the time frame.
“We realize that public confidence in our DNA lab must be rebuilt and restored,” he said.
Others raised concern over how Mayor Muriel Bowser reacted to the results of the audit.
Julia Leighton, general counsel for the Public Defender Service, worried that the firing of the Department of Forensic Sciences’ top staff because of the audit would create a culture of fear among department employees.
“This lab will make mistakes again. There is no such thing as an error-free laboratory,” Ms. Leighton said. “If the executive’s response to mistakes is to promote shame and fear, research in this area tells us that this type of response encourages institutions and people to hide mistakes and to withhold information for fear that mistakes will be found.”
She encouraged Judiciary Committee Chairman Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, to hold a hearing to examine how the department investigates, identifies and resolves to mistakes.
“From the outside it does not appear that the decision to remove all of the management team was just about science and improving the accuracy and reliability of the DNA unit,” Ms. Leighton said.