Saturday, June 10, 2006

Housing Shortage for the Dead

Another difficulty facing crime labs and coroners's/ME's offices is that many are in outdated or inadequate facilities. A great many are housed in buildings not designed for the purpose of lab work or evidence storage. That may not be a problem if funds are expended to refit the building as needed, but this is not always the case. The preservation and integrity of evidence, as well as the health and safety of lab workers, may be at stake.

Some of the worst examples of these forensic science housing shortages have made the news in the past year.

On 1/30/06, in the second part of “Getting Away With Murder,” a series of articles by Jonathan Schuppe and William Kleinknecht in the Newark Star-Ledger, the reporters talked about the conditions in the workplace of the Essex County Prosecutor's Office’s Crime Scene Unit:
    The Essex CSU works from a former parking garage in downtown Newark. Members of the Prosecutor's Office refused to allow a reporter or photographer inside the building. But staffers and internal documents suggest a scene in which bags of evidence are frequently piled in the hallway while case files lay toppled over in an adjacent room.

    There's no trash pickup or cleaning service. The electrical circuits blow out regularly. In winter, investigators rely on space heaters to keep warm. The only source of water is the bathroom, so it sometimes doubles as an evidence-processing area....
Last month, KMEX, the Los Angeles Times, and other news sources reported stories of overcrowding, bodies temporarily moved out of refrigerated units and into hallways, and bodies stacked like cordwood in the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. Workers complained of maggots and potential contamination of evidence. (You can see more about this story on the CLP Forum ). The coroner’s office housed almost 100 more bodies than the aging facility was designed to hold.

In Arizona, the Pima County medical examiner was forced to rent refrigerated trucks last summer to handle the increasing number of bodies stored there. (Chicago Tribune, 8/24/05)

In Benton County, Arkansas, the new coroner pleaded for a refrigerated space to store bodies. She also sought office space and a room to meet with families. According to a report by Serina Wilkins in the Benton County Daily Record on 5/10/05,
    The former coroner... housed the Coroner’s Office at Yvonne’s Costumes, Uniforms and Bridal shop in [the city of] Rogers."

The picture isn't uniformly bleak. In other communities, changes are underway. New labs are being built, labs are being combined into regional facilities to share costs, and some communities have stepped forward with innovative solutions. In California, two years after moving out of a dilapidated building, the San Mateo County Crime Lab was able to earn accreditation from the ASCLD. In the same state, San Bernardino County supervisors, appalled at conditions in their coroner's office, funded recently completed state-of-the-art facilities. In Springfield, Missouri, local bankers devised a plan to help finance a crime lab when a tax measure failed. (Springfield New-Leader, 1/17/06)

What can you do? Urge Congress and your state and local legislatures to provide funding for updated forensic science facilities.
Find out what your local situation is. Don't assume that the fancy lab or spacious coroner's office you see on television reflects what you'd find in your neighborhood. If you have a good city lab, is your county lab in good shape? What about labs in other parts of your state?

Forensic science can be most effective in U.S. when all labs in the country meet basic standards and are adequately housed and supplied.


Sandra Ruttan said...

That's astounding. I'm surprised there aren't more cases being discarded because of questions about the handling of evidence.

Jan said...

I think there are going to be more and more challenges over evidence storage issues. And health problems for lab workers. See today's post for another example.