Thursday, June 08, 2006

Staffing and backlogs

"Funds Help Crime Lab Cut Backlog by 10,000 Cases" by C.S. Murphy in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette is well worth reading. It will give you some insight into the challenges facing crime labs and some of the ways they are being met.

We need to ensure that qualified staff are employed in medical examiner’s offices, coroner’s offices, law enforcement organizations and crime labs at a level that can meet those agencies' workloads. The price of not doing so is enormous: the innocent imprisoned, the guilty free to harm others, hazards and health threats unidentified, children endangered, families left without answers. Forensic science affects us in ways we don't always realize.

For example, we need to ensure that enough trained fingerprint examiners are available to keep up with the need for their work in background checks for would-be foster parents, those seeking to adopt, those who will work with our children in schools, on playgrounds, and other places. To check the backgrounds of those hired to drive trucks laden with hazardous materials over our highways. Trained examiners must be available to process prints taken at jails and as evidence. These are just some of the ways in which fingerprint examiners are of help to us.

But hiring and keeping staff ranks as one of the biggest challenges for public forensic science.

Here's just one story that will give you some idea of the difficulties labs face:

GBI lab loses key analysts to Army,” by Rhonda Cook, was published on May 10, 2006 in the Atlanta Journal.


Sandra Ruttan said...

When I hear about the real problems facing labs, the personnel shortages, the struggle to keep qualified staff due to lack of funds, it always reminds me of a criticism I heard about a book. In this book, it was a plot point that the lab results on the autopsy not come back for 40 days - sorry, I don't remember what book it was - but the reader who criticized it said that was unrealistic.

Unfortunately, TV shows have given people the idea that the lab can turn around with DNA evidence in 24 hours.

I find it frustrating, as a writer, to balance that.

Now, on the other side of the equation, I think it's frustrating that we can't afford to do what it takes to put criminals away. Sad, really.

I wonder if the day will come (maybe it's already here?) that people will start paying private labs for DNA testing on evidence so that they can ensure they get the results because they've lost faith? And then you end up with two-tiered justice, where the rich get their day in court and those that can't afford it might or might not.

I... think I'll be quiet now. Important topic, though.

Jan Burke said...

It's a real problem, Sandra. On the whole, I think CSI and other dramas have been truly beneficial to forensic science -- for one thing, people are aware of its potential in ways they weren't a decade ago.

Shows like Forensics Files have brought awareness of the power of forensic science at its best to millions, and the importance of that can't be underestimated. (Remember the bafflement over DNA during the OJ Simpson trial?)

But when people begin to believe that most labs have the capability of TV drama labs, we're all in trouble.

In the Crime Lab Project, we urge writers to try to portray things more realistically if at all possible. As you know, 40 days for an autopsy report is a speedy result in a great many jurisdictions. While sooner or later a writer will come across some reader who just won't believe a fact, there's no need to worry that most won't like more realism.

For one thing, word is getting out about these delays, and the people who write scenes with 24-Hour DNA turnaround are going to be caught out as researching-by-television.

I firmly believe a good writer can always work the truth into a story. If it requires one character enlightening another, or a protagonist running up against popularly held attitudes and beliefs, fine.

I'll talk about the realities of DNA testing in another post. You aren't too far off.

And please don't be quiet -- I love your thoughtful responses!

Sandra Ruttan said...

I look forward to more on this Jan. You're a wealth of knowledge on the topic, and I'm actually in the midst of the final editing on my book now, and have made a deliberate change to the lag time in getting DNA responses. Some general bloodwork has come back without too much of a lapse, but specific DNA testing for more than blood typing and general stuff is taking longer.

I have Forensics For Dummies, The Forensics Casebook and Forensics The Easy Way, but do you have specific texts/reference books you recommend?

I've also been to the ME's office here a few times, and one thing that shocked others was the truth that the people who do the autopsies aren't ME's - the title's gone out of my head at the moment - but scenes are investigated by Medical Investigators (usually someone with a nursing degree) and the staff that do the autopsies work 8-5, Monday to Friday. If a body comes in off hours, they don't deal with it until next shift.

If I wrote that in a book, unfortunately, nobody would believe it. They also use pruning shears instead of rib cutters, which they insist are just as effective and not nearly as expensive.

Nobody would believe that either but I've seen them with my own eyes.

Jan Burke said...

You may want to check with someone in the jurisdiction you're writing about to see if anyone there is still doing bloodtyping. Even the rarest of ABO blood types doesn't do much to eliminate suspects statistically. Hospitals need it for transfusions, etc, but crime labs are going for DNA because it is more useful in narrowing possibilities, and narrowing possibilities is at the heart of forensic science.

Spatter pattern, yes; blood alcohol content, yes; ABO, I'd double check.

Oh, I'll have lots more to say about the current state of the system of death investigation, including autopsies, soon!