Recently the NAS report described how institutional bias should be avoided by having crime labs removed from police/prosecutor’s agencies. The article quoted below ran in PoliceOne.com, and talks about how police officers can contribute to bias in forensic examination.
A police officer rushes up to the fingerprint examiner and pleads for help.
The suspect sitting in the interrogation room is as guilty as can be, the officer insists, and a confirmed fingerprint match would surely bring about a confession.
Not exactly the environment to produce an unbiased examination.
But neither is it far-fetched in the sometimes boiling climate of crime-fighting. Police officers want arrests to stick, they want to get criminals off the street, and if the system allows them such access to the key processors of information, well, some officers will take advantage.
“They put pressure on you shamelessly,” Pat Wertheim, a longtime fingerprint examiner, said. “I’ve felt it. ”
But not at his present job, Wertheim said, nor would it happen at any lab accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. These days, he said, such pressure likely would occur in small police agencies.
Wertheim works for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and he said that in his lab, police pressure is impossible. “We have an impervious firewall,” Wertheim said. Police officers “can’t get past the secretary. ”
Wertheim, emphasizing that he is speaking for himself and not the agency he works for, recommends that defense attorneys find out what the examiner knew and when the examiner knew it.
“A good line of questioning [of an examiner] would be, ‘Do the police have access to the lab? Do you listen to the police investigator before you do your exam? If the officer said he had an eyewitness, were you aware of that before you did the examination?’”
I have to take exception to Mr. Wetheim’s opinion that it’s impossible to feel pressure while working for an ASCLD accredited laboratory. I’ve felt such pressure while working in an accredited laboratory, and seen it’s applied to other forensic examiners.
One time I was re-analyze evidence I had previously examined and change my opinion from “inconclusive” to “conclusive”, or the local prosecutor wouldn’t go forward with the case.
Another time ranking members of a local prosecuting agency, once again not happy with an “inconclusive” result, back-doored my by personally calling another examiner in the lab I worked in to have them re-analyze the evidence.
One time I was sitting in on a meeting with laboratory “brass”, where the sworn laboratory commander had tentatively agreed to re-analyze all latent print analysis performed at another crime lab in the area, because a local prosecuting agency had “lost faith” in the other agency’s laboratory.
One examiner where I worked gave opinion that the police involved in the case didn’t like. They responded by accusing him of not being part of the “police brotherhood”.
Now in none of the cases I mentioned above did the examiner “cave” into external expectations. And in only one case above did an examiner face disciplinary actions for not “meeting expectations”. Regardless, depending on the individual there are external pressures to conform to expectations. It’s depends on the intestinal fortitude of that individual to stick to the scientific truth of the matter. And truth be told. those individuals who do seem to routinely give opinions and results that are inline with what the agency in charge desires, seem to be disproportionately promoted more rapidly than those examiners who “play it straight”.
Read the whole PoliceOne.com article here.