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New Audit Delivers Another Blow To D.C.’s Embattled Forensics Lab

Department also failed to comply with its own policies, procedures and regulations, and industry standardsEnter Headline here

December 4, 2022

The D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences has failed to operate as an independent part of the justice system, a report from the Office of the D.C. Auditor has found.

The report released Thursday determined the D.C. Council failed to require adequate resources and staff for overseeing a fully independent scientific laboratory, and it approved regulations that made it more difficult to maintain the independence of the laboratory between Jan. 1, 2018, and Dec. 31, 2021.

The department also failed to comply with its own policies, procedures and regulations, and industry standards, the report continues, to "promote transparency and public trust" in its delivery of forensic evidence.

The report also uncovered issues involving the Stakeholder Council, which is chaired by the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice and is meant to address issues or complaints related to the department's work. According to the audit, the council did not operate properly. Issues affecting DFS' delivery of services were "not discussed and resolved," and Stakeholder meeting requirements of two meetings per year were found not to have been met: they held only four total between 2018 and 2020 (zero were recorded in 2021.)

A number of department customers on the Stakeholder Council — notably United States Attorney for D.C.Matthew Graves and D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine — are said to have conducted independent investigations, disregarding the process established in the city's laws and regulations for the department and Science Advisory Board to handle the investigation of complaints. Doing this, the audit says, "undermined the independence of the agency."

The audit also found DFS did not correctly classify or manage employee negligence and misconduct complaints, nor did it consistently follow its own internal, or D.C. municipal regulations on how to handle these complaints.

The Department of Forensic Sciences provides forensic, public health, and crime scene science services for a variety of agencies within the city, including the police department; the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner; the Office of the Attorney General; the Health Department; the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department; and to the D.C. Office of the U.S. Attorney, in addition to other law enforcement and investigative agencies. The department is comprised of three divisions: the Forensic Science Laboratory, the Public Health Laboratory, and Crime Scene Sciences.

Since its initial accreditation in 2013, the Department of Forensic Sciences' accreditation has been suspended twice. The first, in 2015,was a result of nonconformities within the Forensic Biology Unit that resulted in the suspension of all DNA testing.

The American National Accreditation Board suspended it a second time in 2021, citing what Thursday's report described as violations in requirements, misrepresentation and fraudulent behavior, and conduct that brought the Board into "disrepute."

Earlier this year, Councilmembers Charles Allen and Phil Mendelson introduced a bill that would have separated the Department of Forensic Sciences from the D.C. government's executive branch, making it an independent agency.Viewed as an effort to address the myriad problems that have plagued the agency for years, the bill remains under consideration.

In response to the report, the U.S. Attorney's Office issued a statement on Friday that reads, in part, "The D.C. Auditor's Report outlines the many ways the institutional oversight options at DFS were ineffective but then, incredibly, faults USAO and OAG for not relying on those same ineffective options. Without the work of the independent auditors retained by USAO and OAG, the serious issues that led to DFS's loss of accreditation may never have been discovered."

Early evidence of misconduct in the department was indeed uncovered by a Nov. 2020 investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office into the department's false claim that two crimes were committed using the same gun, The Washington Post reported last year.

In response to the damning report, the Auditor's Office offered multiple recommendations to fix the troubled agency.

  • First, it recommends that elected officials amend the D.C. code to require adequate staff support and clear authority for access to laboratory records. This, the report says, will enable the Science Advisory Board to adequately oversee the office. It also urges the council to allocate sufficient resources during the annual budget process.
  • The report also recommends the mayor should develop specific policies and procedures for preparing Stakeholder Council agendas and action items, ensure the department is improving and maintaining a rapport with its customers, and serve as a mediator during serious disagreements between the department and customers.
  • The D.C. Council, specifically, should require the Department of Forensic Sciences to ensure that the Science Advisory Board receives all allegations of professional negligence or misconduct, or any errors in testing or protocol including complaints, the Auditor recommends.
  • Finally, the Department of Forensic Sciences is advised to provide more effective customer service training for all management; start monitoring and maintaining an email account dedicated to receiving complaints; immediately record, investigate, and report to the Science Advisory Board any misconduct allegations within the department.
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