Montgomery County police believe a new accreditation approved last week for its crime lab will ensure the department’s success in investigations and inspire trust in the lab’s reliability.
The new accreditation standard was approved by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors’ accreditation board Thursday. It adds new and updated standards for the department to follow in the fields of analyzing crime scene evidence, firearms, latent print analysis and inspecting electronic crimes or digital evidence, said Ray Wickenheiser, director of the department’s Forensic Services Section.
Under the previous, now outdated, accreditation program, only the biology/DNA and chemistry/drug identification units of the lab were accredited, Wickenheiser said.
“We decided to get every aspect of what we do that entails any forensic component to accredit everything,” he said.
The department also decided to adapt a higher International Standards Organization requirement, independent of the crime lab directors’ association, that emphasizes the precise, written and electronically backed-up documentation of every aspect of the crime lab’s investigations, said Jackie Raskin-Burns, the laboratory’s quality control manager.
The ISO is a network of government and private business members in more than 164 countries that establishes the best practice standards for a variety of different fields, including forensic labs, according to the organization’s website.
“We have to have a written procedure for how to transport guns to the shooting range to do test fires and transport [them] back, so that had to actually be written down,” Raskin-Burns said, giving an example of the type of information the lab must document. “It helps to let the community know that we have a sound, quality program that follows very strict, high standards and that those standards are monitored; it’s to help garner trust from the community.”
While the accreditation did not require the purchase of new equipment, application and recurring annual auditing fees were involved, Wickenheiser said. The total cost of the fees amounted to less than $10,000, he added.
While not directly related to the accreditation process, the crime lab staff has added seven positions, including that of Raskin-Burns, over the last two years to help ensure the higher standards, Wickenheiser said.
As the crime lab’s quality manager, Raskin-Burns’ position is the most directly related to accreditation. She oversees the staff’s strict adherence to the new ISO and ASCLD requirements and keeps personnel up to date on new training, she said.
The end result was well worth the investment, Wickenheiser said.
“Those resources are to reduce [case] backlog and to apply them to improving ... technology,” he explained. “Citizens are always going to gain by having a better quality service; you’ll solve more crime [and] there’s an expectation that, in forensic testing, when people’s freedom is at stake, you should have some kind of bar that the lab has to attain to make sure that you can trust that testing.”
Case backlog has decreased from more than 400 cases to fewer than 50 over the last four years, in large part due to the lab’s efforts to maintain current quality assurance standards, such as the new accreditations, Wickenheiser added.
Before beginning work with the crime lab in December of 2010, Raskin-Burns, who has a master’s degree in science and genetics, worked for the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, using DNA samples to identify soldiers killed in battle, she said.
Among her accomplishments was the use of mitochondrial DNA to attempt to identify the remains of Confederate soldiers who perished in one of the first submarine vessels used in the Civil War, the H.L. Hunley, and work using conventional DNA to identify victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., she said.
“I have learned so much [here in Montgomery County],” she said. “I’ve been here my whole life; this is my community, and this is my way of feeling like I’m giving back to my community ... It’s a different kind of satisfaction than I got from my other job.”