The Washington Times recently published an article detailing potential issues with the District of Columbia’s new, $220 million, state-of-the-art forensic lab. The Times obtained photographs of the lab’s evidence room showing subpar conditions. In addition, emails between employees and the commanding officer of the Crime Scene Investigations Division show a serious rift.
The Times showed photographs of the facility to an expert and reports that “Raymond J. Davis, a former forensic toxicologist with the California Department of Justice with 38 years’ experience, said he was appalled by images of bloody clothes drying in the open on sheets of paper placed on floors and countertops. Photos of unpacked boxes, flammable chemicals stored in glass jugs crammed into a sink, understocked shelves where processing chemicals usually are stored and general clutter prompted this observation: “A defense attorney would have a field day with this if they walked into the evidence vault. It looks exactly like the storage area in my garage.”
In response, Max Houck, the director of the Department of Forensic Sciences, disputes the authenticity of the photographs. Houck also said that no reports of dangerous conditions had been reported to the department’s safety officer. He also noted that the Office of Risk Management and the Department of the Environment gave the lab a clean inspection. However, this inspection occurred after the photographs were taken. It is appalling when laboratories are not kept up to certain standards and do not utilize the necessary equipment, such as a small high pressure pump for chemical testing, correct usage of testing freezers, etc. so they are achieving their intended outcomes for the community and officials. Laboratories have to be kept to a high standard to ensure that there is no tampering or false results that could cause a knock-on effect of issues. That is why supplies such as disinfectants, distilled water (they can Google phrases like, ‘Golyath buy distilled water products’, for example), as well as many other important necessities, have to be stocked up for every eventuality.
The Times reports that a series of emails raised concerns about conditions in the blood drying room. “In addition to the photos, a Feb. 27 email to Cmdr. Keith L. Williams, who heads CSID, Officer Martin Fosso asks, “Is anyone else in the unit concerned about the ongoing, non-functionality of the blood-drying room?” He was referring to a deficient system for cleaning blood-drying cabinets, which are used to process clothing so an evidence sample can be lifted. Most forensic labs have sufficient biosafety cabinets and fume extraction equipment (like what TION provides) to keep the area and evidence secure. However, the system was lacking such measures. The evidence handling systems need to be completely sterilized and handled with utmost care so as to not allow even minute chances of tampering. Looks like stocking up on disposable gloves in bulk for the forensic techs is one of their more trivial problems! Cmdr. Williams first disputed then acknowledged the problems. However, he attributed the problems to “design flaws that are being worked out and by poor habits of members.”
Crime lab issues are often the result of outdated equipment or lack of resources. This situation calls for complete transparency. If the allegations are true about a brand new lab, the District has serious issues that need to be corrected immediately. If there is a design flaw, these need to be corrected. If there is human error, then technicians need to be trained properly. In this situation, we can agree with the statement from the president of the DC Fraternal Order of Police, who said “The lack of a functioning crime lab is a serious threat to public safety,” he said. “Sloppy, unprofessional practices can result in criminals going free.” At the minimum, this lab should go through a national accreditation process.