This morning, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen led an oversight hearing into D.C.’s troubled Department of Forensic Sciences. The agency was stripped of its accreditation after scathing reports of shoddy evidence testing and attempts to cover it up. The Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety, which Allen chairs, discussed with the lab’s new leader, Interim Director Anthony Crispino, about its goal of getting its accreditation back.
First, a little background: The national forensics board, ANSI National Accreditation Board, first issued a suspension in April and then ultimately revoked the D.C. lab’s accreditation entirely in May. It all started after a report found the lab’s ballistics unit erroneously linked two 2015 homicide cases to the same gun. Then, reports show, managers attempted to cover up and minimize the errors. ANAB said in an April letter, obtained by WTOP, that there was “credible evidence” to remove its lab accreditation over the “fraudulent behavior.”
Since the crime lab lost its accreditation, there has been one bad headline after another:
- Several managers left the agency throughout the year including former Director Jenifer Smith.
- The firearms unit was disbanded in September.
- Federal prosecutors said in a June letter to ANAB they were “deeply troubled” by the lab’s lack of transparency and inability to admit wrongdoing.
- Recent court filings detailed a supervisor’s account about how the lab lost two vials of the bacteria that causes the bubonic plague. When they went to look for the report on how it was resolved, it was also missing.
The lab continues to process evidence, but the work is contracted out to other labs. Now, with new leadership, DFS wants to bring its testing back in house.
Under the Microscope
Interim Director Crispino provided updates to Councilmember Allen this morning about the changes to the agency as they aim for recertification. He said there was no danger to public health and safety in this process. Crispino also said the forensic analysis firm SNA International is conducting an independent audit to help put D.C.’s crime lab in the best possible spot to gain its credentials back and make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.
“If you don’t identify the root cause, or multiple root causes, then they will remain baked into whatever cake we’re producing,” Crispino said. “But they’re not stopping there. They’re also looking to see if there were any other issues that may have been below the surface or may not have been flagged.”
Crispino says a report of the audit’s findings will be released publicly no later than November. He projects it will be largely “available in its entirety” with limited redaction. He also plans to hire someone with expertise in “conviction integrity review” to lead a team tasked with developing new protocols to address the report’s findings.
This will all begin the process of gaining its accreditation back, but one unit may not join the rest of DFS in its reinstatement.
Remember the firearms unit that saw a reduction in force last month? Crispino said this is because it will likely take at least a year (which he said is a “conservative” estimate) to get firearms examination unit ready for reaccreditation. Skill also plays a factor. Firearms examination is more difficult than something like drug or DNA testing, Crispino said.
“If you have seized drugs, well those drugs are going to be put into a machine which is going to break down the content of the sample to a scientific degree of certainty,” he said. “Firearms involve an examination of tool marks on metal. You’re looking at impressions or scratches on a shell piece. That comparative work isn’t something that you just get a degree for.”
He said DFS will likely apply for firearms accreditation separately from all the other units, which need a “lesser degree of work” when it comes to needed corrections. While the report’s projected release is still over a month away, Crispino said they’re already identifying ways to address the agency’s deficiencies.
“We’re not hitting the ground at a standstill, we’re actually already at a jog, towards the reaccreditation process,” he said.
—Bailey Vogt (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
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