The DC Crime Lab Symbolizes a Decade of Failures

All DC residents deserve safe, stable, and secure communities. Community safety is at the top of people’s minds, with many residents recognizing that meeting basic needs and investing in violence prevention efforts are important measures to improve safety. As we talk about other aspects of community safety related to our response when violence occurs, including prosecution of crimes, we must talk about the District’s failed Department of Forensic Science.

Erin Palmer
7 min readMar 3, 2022

The current Council Chair lists creation of the District’s Department of Forensic Science as one of his legislative successes. You wouldn’t know from his statement, however, that the District’s crime lab has been plagued with failures from the start and recently lost its accreditation to perform forensic testing. This continual dysfunction means slower progress on cases, more innocent people behind bars, and delays in ensuring we have both truth and justice in our criminal justice system.

A DC Council better equipped to analyze and implement best practices could have created a truly independent, objective, and expert-led crime lab. Such a crime lab would have been an unequivocally good thing for fairness and ensuring that DC’s criminal legal system relies on objective scientific analysis. Stronger leadership and oversight are now necessary to correct for a decade of failures.

What is the District’s Department of Forensic Science?

The District’s Department of Forensic Science is our local crime lab. In crime labs, scientists and other trained experts analyze evidence collected from ​victims, suspects, and crime scenes and provide forensic analysis to city agencies like police and prosecutors. Crime labs analyze things like DNA, fingerprints, and firearms. A strong, well-run crime lab ensures successful prosecutions, as well as prevents convicting the wrong person of a crime they did not commit.

Creation of DC’s crime lab followed a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences critiquing the objectivity, validity, and scientific bases of certain forensic analysis disciplines common in crime labs across the United States. At the time, most crime labs were embedded within police departments (including in DC) or prosecutors’ offices, leading to outcomes influenced more by the desire to close cases and win convictions than objective science and analysis. Labeled as “science,” disciplines like hair and fiber analysis, firearms analysis, and other pattern matching disciplines resulted in false convictions later overturned based on DNA analysis or other newly discovered evidence.

A History of Failures

When the District’s Department of Forensic Science was formed in 2012, DC had the opportunity to create a truly independent, objective, and expert-led crime lab. The current Council Chair continues to promote his role in establishing the crime lab, but the legislation establishing the lab did not contain standards, training, or objectivity requirements for examiners. As a result, the crime lab had immediate problems.

Fingerprint examiners were largely “grandfathered” into DC’s crime lab from the Metropolitan Police Department without any additional training or screening of their qualifications. At the time, only two of the 11 examiners passed skills tests conducted by an outside contractor before they transitioned to the then-new crime lab. The contractor that conducted the skills tests informed leadership at the crime lab of the fail rate, but it appears no corrective action took place.

Various audits, reports, and investigations found additional failures, including related to former Metropolitan Police Department employees working in the firearms examination unit who falsified results of their examinations to produce a report advantageous to the prosecutor, ultimately resulting in the DC crime lab losing its accreditation:

  • A national accreditation board ordered DC’s crime lab to suspend DNA analyses in 2015, concluding that the lab’s procedures were “insufficient and inadequate.” According to the audit, the DNA analysts at DC’s crime lab “were not competent and were using inadequate procedures.”
  • The District Office of the Inspector General initiated a criminal investigation of DC’s crime lab on December 3, 2020. The investigation looked into the crime lab’s quality-control systems “amid allegations the agency systematically removed the names of analysts from some documents — a move which one former supervisor at the agency said was made to prevent defense attorneys from calling those analysts to testify about mistakes listed in the documents.”
  • The District’s Office of the Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia retained a team of experts that released an audit of DC’s crime lab on March 18, 2021. The audit called on the firearms examination unit to immediately stop performing casework and evaluate and retrain all current examiners. The audit also noted crime lab leadership had ordered alterations of forensic analysis.
  • A forensic consulting firm released a 157-page report on December 8, 2021, calling for a wholesale restructuring of DC’s crime lab based on “a series of failures across the lab, as well as a deficient quality-management system that failed to fix recurring high-risk problems, and a culture where employees felt they couldn’t speak up about problems.” The report specifically cited the structural failure of the management and advisory board created by the current Council Chair’s 2011 law establishing the crime lab.

The discovery of falsified forensic analysis and subsequent investigations of systemic problems at DC’s crime lab have called into question the legitimacy of years of cases involving firearms and fingerprint analysis performed by these examiners. These failures are likely to lead to a very costly reopening of decades of cases and reexamination of evidence, not to mention the discovery of false convictions that have cost DC residents decades of freedom.

As noted by the Washington Post Editorial Board:

That people might have been wrongly arrested, prosecuted or convicted because of this dysfunctional agency should keep officials up at night. So should the thought of the pain that reopening cases will inflict upon the survivors and victims of crime. It’s important that the District get it right this time and commit the resources necessary to ensure a comprehensive review of past cases and accurate analysis of evidence of future cases.

Attorney General Racine and Mayor Bowser have called for many of the audits that have taken place, as well as action to plan the extensive re-examination of cases that is likely necessary to correct for the DC crime lab’s failures. But these failures were built in from the start due to faulty legislation establishing the lab and failed oversight as the agency got off the ground. Those failures were compounded by a “hands off” approach by DC Council leadership as failures and problems piled up over the next decade.

Stronger Leadership and More Accountability

A truly independent, objective crime lab would have been an unequivocally good thing for fairness and ensuring that DC’s criminal legal system relies on objective scientific analysis. In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences laid out a detailed roadmap in their report for how to develop a crime lab that operates with the highest scientific standards and independence to ensure that its analyses are based on science and not improperly influenced by prosecutors or law enforcement. The current Council Chair failed to follow this roadmap in creating DC’s crime lab, setting the crime lab on its current path.

At its inception, DC’s crime lab perpetuated existing problems with confirmation and other cognitive biases and human error by failing to ensure independence and proper training. At a bare minimum, the lab should have hired objective fingerprint and firearms examiners, required that everyone meet specific qualifications and standards, and put in place safeguards to protect examiners from being influenced by prosecutors or the police department. The failures we’ve seen reflect the lack of a hands-on, in-the-weeds reworking of the lab’s key roles and functions when it was formed to ensure the lab is actually objective, analysts are properly trained, and the lab relies on best practices and peer-reviewed methods.

The current Council Chair continues to promote his role in establishing the crime lab, but the legislation establishing the lab did not contain standards, training, or objectivity requirements for examiners. As a result, the crime lab had immediate problems.

We’re now stuck with costly audits and evidence in thousands of criminal prosecutions being called into question. Attorney General Racine has called for a review of cases preceding 2012, and Mayor Bowser has called for legislative action by mid-March to address some of the failures. The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia has recommended an independent entity ​​with a “proven absence of conflict of interest” to oversee the mass retesting of evidence that is necessary and that could result in reopening hundreds of cases, as well as a two-step review process.

Failures like these are why I’ve created a detailed DC Council Accountability Plan. It lays out a number of tangible steps I would take as Council Chairwoman to improve the functioning of the DC Council. The Council needs more nonpartisan, professional support that can assess nationwide best practices and tailor those practices to meet DC’s needs. Having consistent, professional staff supporting consistent, neutral Council Committees can better achieve robust, dedicated oversight. Instead of trying to claim a spurious correlation and causation link between who chairs what Council Committee and crime rates in the District, DC leaders can focus on what my DC Council Accountability Plan would deliver: consistent, evidence- and best practices-based legislation and oversight on the issues that matter to DC communities.

I would take these tangible steps as Council Chairwoman to improve the functioning of the DC Council — including making sure that the last decade of failures under our current Council Chair isn’t met with another decade of failures.