Asked & Answered: Evidence in criminal investigations

The Michigan State Police announced on June 28 the creation of a statewide Forensic Evidence Academy intended to train law enforcement in the processing of evidence in criminal investigations. The new academy was part of the public safety initiatives announced in March by Gov. Rick Snyder in his Special Message to the Legislature on Public Safety. Director John M. Collins heads the Michigan State Police Forensic Science Division in Lansing.

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

Q: What exactly is forensic science and is it like what we see on television?

I usually tell people that if you understand that science can be used to solve crimes, then what you see on television is reasonably accurate. Obviously, there are huge differences from reality, but many television programs do a nice job of balancing the drama with some degree of technical accuracy, which I suspect is hard to do. Forensic laboratories and crime scene personnel use science to answer questions about physical evidence. Contrary to what people think, we don't determine guilt or innocence. Forensic science simply allows objects that can't speak for themselves to be become witnesses to a crime. It's up to other people to use our scientific results to answer the bigger questions about guilt or innocence. I will add, however, that most people don't realize how difficult and time consuming forensic samples can be to work with. It's not like a tube of blood going to a clinical lab to have cholesterol checked. It's an entirely different kind of expertise and operation, and much more labor intensive.

Q: What was the genesis of the Forensic Evidence Academy idea?

The concept actually emerged by recognizing an obvious opportunity to improve how we manage forensic science and forensic evidence in Michigan. In 2008, for example, we witnessed the closure of the Detroit Police Crime Laboratory, which had been in operation for over 80 years, followed by our learning that an unknown stock of nearly 11,000 rape kits that were being stored at the Detroit Police Department.

At the Michigan State Police, our laboratory backlogs skyrocketed to roughly 20,000 cases in January 2010, and in some cases it was talking over a year to complete our testing. So common sense makes you wonder if we should be doing things better, which requires training and continuing education. One of the biggest misconceptions we are trying to correct is the idea that forensic science only happens in the laboratory. The forensic value of evidence is built up from the time it is collected from the crime scene to the time it is presented in court.

The entire criminal justice system has to understand it and respect it or the system fails, as we have seen in other jurisdictions around the country.

Q: Who will be invited to participate?

For the most part, any criminal justice professional in Michigan will eventually be able to participate in our training and education offerings. This won't happen overnight, but I envision offering training and continuing education to crime scene technicians, forensic scientists, investigators, prosecutors, defenders, journalists, public officials, and others. Something else to keep in mind is that our laboratories have provided training to criminal justice personnel for many years. We are simply expanding the concept and standardizing it to make it more valuable.

Q: Massive backlogs of evidence testing, in many cases more than 100 days, arguably harm the cause of justice. How did we come to be in this fix?

Fortunately, we are already fixing the problem by employing a broad set of business and management strategies that I think are critical to running crime labs in the modern era. We are not out of the woods, but our backlog is half of what it was in January of 2010 when it peaked.

Basically, if our production capacity is less than the incoming demand for our services, then the backlog rises. The mistake we made in the past was thinking that the only way you deal with the problem is by focusing on the capacity side of the issue. Good business practices in crime labs require you to focus on both capacity and demand. This means that on the capacity side we want to make sure we have adequate staffing, supplies, equipment, and facilities to do the job. But on the demand side, we have to have strong customer service and case management practices that allow us to minimize the time our scientists spend testing evidence that really has minimal or no real value to the criminal justice system.

Every case is different, so the better we collaborate with our customers to identify the best evidence in criminal cases, and the smarter we are about the decisions we make, the faster our laboratories can conduct quality testing.

Q: Learning to prioritize evidence will apparently be a major emphasis. How will this "triage" work?

It's interesting you used the word ''triage,'' which has become a controversial term, particularly among some police and prosecutors who get anxious when you suggest that not all physical evidence requires testing in all cases - and not all evidence needs to go to the laboratory all at the same time.

Triage is just a fancy word for prioritization. Many times, the management of evidence is more important that the testing. For example, when you go to the doctor's office for a sore throat, the doctor doesn't order a CT Scan on the off chance that you might have a brain tumor, which is an extremely serious and life threatening disease.

Our health care system could not function that way, and neither can the forensic science system. For the most part, well-trained and educated professionals tend to make smarter decisions, which ultimately increases efficiency. And I would say that any risk that comes from exercising professional discretion about what evidence requires forensic testing is far outweighed by the public safety benefits of crime labs that are able to identify perpetrators more quickly. It has been proven time and again around the country that dumping evidence on crime labs without due diligence at the ''front end'' is business model doomed to failure.

Q: A significant part of the course is web-based. Could you describe that component?

There are a few components to the web-based services. First, we are launching and developing a brand new website at www.michigan.gov/forensics that we will build into an interactive and resource-rich site for the Michigan criminal justice system and the public. We will have literature, short training videos, information about our laboratory services, and other resources that are accessible from the field and from the courtroom.

Also, we have been working with the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) in Largo, Fla., which has developed a number of web-based training programs that we will be using. NFSTC also has a lot of expertise in forensic curriculum development that I think will be helpful to us. I don't want to reinvent any wheels so using existing platforms that have already demonstrated success will be critical to getting the academy running at full speed as quickly as possible.

Q: Are you planning to fine tune the program based on results? What else might the future hold on this front?

This question makes me smile because with Governor Snyder and State Police Director Kriste Etue, measurable program results are a big deal. Yes, we will be tracking a number of critical indicators that will help us evaluate our progress. Adult education is an entire occupation in itself, and there are a number of resources and strategies that we are pulling from that particular community.

And as you might expect, seeking the feedback of those who use our academy will be important towards building it up to its fullest potential. When all is said and done, we want crime scenes and forensic evidence to be taken very seriously in Michigan, and we want to give a voice to items of evidence that can't speak for themselves. Expertise is the name of the game and I think we have an opportunity to really improve how we do business. Ironically, the better we do our job, the few crime scenes we will have, which would be a great thing.

Published: Mon, Jul 9, 2012

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