Last year the St. Paul Crime Lab was shut down after Minnesota defense attorneys Christine Funk and Lori Traub exposed the lab’s shoddy practices and procedures when dealing with crucial evidence. At the time, the lab was supervised by a poorly trained St. Paul Police Sergeant.
Following the lab’s closing, the city hired two independent consultants to review the lab’s work and make recommendations to improve the lab. The consultants found errors in almost every area of the lab's work. (Here are their crime lab reports).
Following the recommendations of two independent consultants, the city created a new position of “Forensic Lab Manager” to be filled by an independent, properly-trained scientist. The use of an independent scientist is the crucial point – hiring such a person recognizes the importance of crime labs’ independence from police and prosecution, something the scientific community has stressed for years (for example, see recommendation #4 of the National Academy of Sciences Report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (2009).
Professor Harris, author of Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science (NYU Press, 2012), explains the rationale behind the recommendation for independent laboratories in The Truth About Forensic Science:
The idea couldn’t be clearer: in order that we have better, science-based forensic methods and results, and especially to maximize independence from law enforcement, all forensic labs had to be removed from all law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices. As the report explained, “The best science is conducted in a scientific setting as opposed to a law enforcement setting. Because forensic scientists often are driven in their work by a need to answer a particular question related to the issues of a particular case, they sometimes face pressure to sacrifice appropriate methodology for the sake of expediency.”
Although the city was eventually forced to acknowledge the problems with their lab, and seem to be making a good faith effort to bring the lab up to professional standards, the police union has thrown up a barrier to the new position. And surprisingly, the union makes no secret about its reason for the obstruction: the union objects purely because they want day-to-day control of the lab and additional jobs for cops. That’s how you get quotes like the following mind-bender: “Sworn officers should not be reporting to civilians.”
We’ve seen the ramifications of cop-run labs – it took the painstaking work of numerous defense attorneys countless hours to expose the St. Paul Crime lab . . . which is just one example out of many. It is time for the police to put the best interests of the public first. As Professor Harris writes,
Personally, I believe in unions. I feel that they have been a key factor in generating middle class prosperity in the U.S. since the early 20th century. But this seems like simple obstruction of a change needed to benefit the public, just for the gain of a few.
With the union refusing to allow officers to report to civilians, it is clear the police will continue to engage in a turf war, regardless of how it affects public safety.
As one defense attorney who helped expose the shoddy lab work said, “I think the sergeant did answer to the civilians -- last July.”