Several local government officials and criminal defense attorneys want the city of Austin to consider doing what other major U.S. cities have done when their forensic crime labs have experienced a crisis of credibility — separate the lab from the police department.
The lab stopped analyzing DNA in late May, when Austin police decided to have their forensic analysts retrained after some of their techniques were called into question. A Texas Forensic Science Commission report released a few months ago concluded that one of the lab’s DNA testing practices raised “concerns about the APD DNA lab’s understanding of foundational issues in DNA analysis.”
Since then, Austin police have been sending DNA evidence they’ve collected to the Department of Public Safety’s crime lab to be tested.
The Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association has urged Austin officials to follow the lead of other cities that experienced police lab failures and to separate the lab from the police department that oversees it. Mike Levy, who serves on Austin’s Public Safety Commission, and former Travis County prosecutor Kent Anschutz have also called for separating the lab.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt worries whether such an overhaul would be financially possible and said she needs to look at all options before endorsing any proposed change, but she supported the spirit of the idea.
“In a perfect world, an independent lab is the gold standard. … You don’t want the lab to be beholden to anyone,” she said.
A 2009 National Academy of Sciences report strongly recommended that crime labs across the country separate from police departments. This would reduce any biases that could stem from those partnerships, the report said.
In a statement responding to questions from the American-Statesman, Austin police officials appeared to be skeptical of the idea of an independent lab and said they’re taking actions to make sure the DNA lab meets current scientific standards when it reopens next year.
While the lab is under the department, police officials said they have the ability to prioritize cases and types of crimes. Austin police also pointed out that when Washington, D.C., moved its crime lab outside the police department, it experienced significant challenges, including a 10-month suspension of its activities.
There are examples in Dallas and Houston of forensic labs run by non-law-enforcement entities. San Antonio’s lab is separate from its police department, but answers to the Bexar County Commissioner’s Court.
Dallas’s medical examiner’s office runs its forensic lab, a route that Levy envisions Austin could follow. Chris Perri, an attorney with the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, also expressed support for this arrangement.
“It’s common sense,” Levy said. “Do you have an M.D., Ph.D. overseeing DNA testing, or do you have police overseeing it?”
Perri agreed that having scientists oversee the lab would be for the best. The Austin lab has been accredited for years, and that didn’t seem to provide the scientific oversight the lab needed, Perri said.
“That, to me, is fascinating that APD was under the radar for this long,” Perri said. “If it wasn’t for the Forensic Science Commission, they’d still be doing it wrong.”
In Houston, city officials decided to revamp their lab after a series of scandals throughout the first decade of the 2000s. In several high-profile exonerations, DNA evidence was retested and found to disprove results that had landed men in jail. Several audits throughout the years found that technicians had misinterpreted data, were poorly trained and kept shoddy records. Before becoming independent, the Houston lab was temporarily shut down twice in three years.
In an effort to overhaul the lab’s management, the Houston City Council established the nonprofit Houston Forensic Science Center in 2014.
“We didn’t go and fire everybody,” said Nicole Casarez, chairwoman of the center’s board. “The employees came along. What we as a board did was we hired an executive officer and a chief operating officer who ran it like a business. We brought in top people who really knew what they were doing. They’re scientists. They improved and modernized the standard operating procedures and attained accreditation.”
Though attrition, the Houston lab also reduced the number of police officers who worked there handling fingerprint evidence and other forensic materials, the center’s officials said.
The creation of the independent lab drastically reduced the time it takes to process evidence, the center’s officials said in an interview with the Statesman. Two years ago, the Houston lab took an average of 145 days to process evidence, not just DNA, said Peter Stout, the lab’s chief operating officer. Today, it takes about 45 days on average, 30 days for rape kits.
For Austin, another benefit of separating its forensic lab from the Police Department would be eliminating the possibility of bias, Perri said.
“My overarching goal is a general independence from law enforcement,” he said. “The scientific method is all about not knowing the results when you’re doing the testing. What sticks out to me the most in these forensic commission reports is the details of confirmation bias. The police actually get to go talk to these lab techs.”
In its report, the Texas Forensic Science Commission said it found “suspect-driven bias” in the Austin lab, which the commission noted is common in crime labs.
Additionally, the commission found that analysts at the Austin lab weren’t following manufacturer’s instructions for a specific chemical; contamination in one instance had incorrectly suggested a person was a suspect in a sexual assault; and staffers had used a technique in certain cases that “is neither scientifically valid nor supported by the DNA forensic community.”
What we reported
The American-Statesman has been closely following problems at the Austin Police Department’s forensic lab in the last few years, including the backlog of hundreds of rape kits and DNA tests, the training and procedural deficiencies that led to the lab’s closure, and the Police Department’s efforts to address them.