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Point of View : Apr 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 7)

Deficiencies in Forensic Science Training Must Be Met Head-On

Scientists, Lawyers, and Judges Need Education to Overcome the “CSI Effect”
  • Richard Bisbing

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its many spin-offs might be the world’s most popular television series. As a result the “CSI effect” has influenced the forensic sciences and indeed the criminal justice system. 

Due to the dramatic license taken by television writers, however, the CSI effect erroneously raises our expectations of forensic science by glamorizing it, exaggerating its abilities, and overstating the accuracy of forensic techniques.

While remarkable advances in biotechnology have enabled DNA typing to become the gold standard for forensic science, other forensic evidence such as fingerprints, toolmarks, bitemarks, hairs, and blood spatters struggle to defend themselves against their critics. We should all expect forensic science to solve crimes and put the right people in jail. But it doesn’t always work that way.

That’s why in February the National Academy’s Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Sciences Community issued a report on the scientific shortcomings and policy changes that could improve the field, titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” Though the report did not dwell on the past, there was nothing new—nothing that leading forensic scientists such as those from the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations (CFSO) have not been proposing for decades. “The CFSO has long called for a comprehensive review of the state of forensics in this country,” said chairman Peter Marone.

The report says that the way forward is to minimize the great disparities between federal, state, and local crime laboratories. All crime labs need money, educated and skilled staff, more training, and better analytical equipment. In an effort to minimize these disparities, the committee made several key recommendations: crime labs should be independent and autonomous from law-enforcement agencies (police and prosecutors); crime labs should write reports that are more consistent with standards generally accepted by the scientific community; there needs to be more fundamental research primarily designed to better understand error rates for all forensic techniques; there needs to be mandatory accreditation of laboratories and mandatory certification of forensic scientists; and, an enforceable code of ethics for the practice of forensic science needs to be established.

Probably the most contentious recommendation, and the most political, will be trying to separate crime labs from law enforcement. Many will think that the system works best when there is local control over a proper mix of science and crime investigation. The criminal investigators need ready access to the science; scientists need to be responsive to community desires to solve crime. The concept of removing forensic science from the influence of the police and prosecutors has long been proposed as a way to prevent contextual bias.  But is that true? 

Bias and pressure to conform come from a variety of places in forensic scientists’ psyches. In addition, crime labs need funding and funding comes with political power. From where will the isolated, independent forensic laboratory derive its strength and appropriations? Today, they get it from the law-enforcement community of which they are a part. Of course, we would also expect that the federal government might find some difficulty legislating local police and court practices from Washington.

Training

The committee was most concerned with forensic scientists’ knowledge base. It concluded that staffing and equipment to reduce backlogs was not enough; forensic scientists need more fundamental research to validate their techniques and more training to conduct them proficiently.

I believe that it’s all about training. As the report says, forensic scientists need to understand the principles, practices, and context of the scientific methodology they use, as well as the distinctive features of their specialty. 

Training should move away from reliance on the apprentice-like transmittal of practices—an incestuous process—to college and university education and continuing professional development and training to keep abreast of advances in new techniques and an understanding of the old, traditional techniques. 

Training will also be needed to comply with the mandatory accreditation of laboratories and certification of all practitioners. In order to overcome the CSI effect, there is also a need to educate the users of forensic science, especially lawyers and judges. The juries need an explanation of reality as well.

The need for training has not gone unnoticed. Training has been considered one of the areas most lacking in the forensic science and criminal justice communities for some time now. Nevertheless, crime labs with budget shortfalls always seem to cut travel and training first.  Therefore, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) created the Forensic Science Training Development and Delivery Program. 

The College of Microscopy, for example, participates in a cooperative agreement with the NIJ to train 200 trace evidence examiners in state-of-the-art microanalytical techniques. This training is free to state and local crime laboratory examiners. Within a couple of weeks of the program’s announcement, three-quarters of the slots were filled, a common response experienced by other training programs sponsored by the NIJ.

In the end, forensic science must be strengthened from within—from the bottom up. Forensic science cannot be strengthened by the politicians and lawyers—from the top down. The ultimate strength of the forensic sciences will come from more training to ensure the legitimacy and integrity of this field in the future.