Today, Councilmember Charles Allen – along with his colleagues Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau, Brooke Pinto, Mary Cheh, Janeese Lewis George, Vince Gray, Christina Henderson, Robert White, and Anita Bonds – introduced legislation to overhaul the District’s Department of Forensic Sciences (“DFS”), which since April 2, 2021, has been unaccredited and incapable of analyzing evidence such as firearms and ballistics, DNA, digital evidence, and fingerprints in criminal prosecutions.
Today, Councilmember Charles Allen – along with his colleagues Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau, Brooke Pinto, Mary Cheh, Janeese Lewis George, Vincent C. Gray, Christina Henderson, Robert White, and Anita Bonds – introduced legislation to overhaul the District’s Department of Forensic Sciences (“DFS”), which since April 2, 2021, has been unaccredited and incapable of analyzing evidence such as firearms and ballistics, DNA, digital evidence, and fingerprints in criminal prosecutions.
Most recently, reports from independent consultants highlighted systemic management failures, including leadership ignoring or hiding concerns with specific case analyses. The ensuing withdrawal of accreditation for forensic sciences and uncertainty in the quality of the Department’s work has resulted in the need to review potentially thousands of cases in which its employees performed analysis on firearms and fingerprints. It has also forced prosecutors to seek assistance from private or federal laboratories to pursue their cases.
Two major changes proposed in the bill would transform how a re-accredited Department would function and would align with the Department’s efforts to chart a course back to full accreditation.
First, Councilmember Allen proposes turning DFS into an independent agency, similar to the Board of Elections and the Office of Administrative Hearings, and rename the agency the Forensic Sciences and Public Health Laboratory.
Second, to enhance accountability and ensure transparency, the bill would overhaul the Department’s leadership structure, including by creating a new Chief Forensic Sciences Officer, modifying the role of the director to be more management-focused, and expanding and strengthening the scope of the Department’s Science Advisory Board.
“It’s hard to overstate the harm that the collapse of the District’s Department of Forensic Sciences has caused to the District’s criminal justice system. The ripple effects are massive and will take years to fix,” said Councilmember Charles Allen, chair of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. “What I am proposing makes significant changes to the structure and operations of the Department to restore trust in its work and get it back on track, as well as completely reforming how complaints and allegations of misconduct or testing errors get addressed. We can never lose sight of the end goal of an independent and transparent forensic lab that evaluates evidence fairly and ensures defendants and victims benefit from unbiased science.”
In an effort to determine the root causes of the Department’s failures, the District also contracted with SNA International, Inc. ("SNA”) in May 2021 to perform a comprehensive review of the Department’s operations. SNA made several substantive recommendations to amend the law that established the Department. This bill incorporates most of those recommendations and proposes additional reforms based on a series of oversight hearings conducted by the Committee over the past year.
Those changes include:
1. Redesignating DFS as the Forensic Sciences and Public Health Laboratory and making it an independent agency:
Currently, DFS is a subordinate agency within the executive branch. Making it an independent Laboratory, akin to Office of the Attorney General, Office of Administrative Hearings, and the Board of Elections, for example, will hold the Laboratory more accountable to its customer-stakeholders and make it more receptive to the concerns brought forth by all entities in the District’s criminal justice system, less susceptible to political pressures, and committed to fulfilling its mission of providing independent, high-quality, timely, accurate, and reliable forensic science services.
2. Restructuring the Science Advisory Board (“SAB”) and strengthening its membership:
SNA recommended that the SAB be split into two SAB’s: one with a forensic science focus and the other with a public health focus. Instead, the legislation adds two additional seats to the SAB and changes the qualifications for members to reflect the recommendations put forth by SNA. To reflect these changes, the board will be renamed the Science Advisory and Review Board. The qualifications will now require more technical and quality assurance experience, in contrast to the more academic requirements currently in place. The SARB would still handle forensic sciences and public health lab issues. And importantly, as SARB members take on the additional responsibilities described below, they would be also able to be paid like other board and commission members.
3. Overhauling the process for addressing and responding to complaints or allegations of professional negligence, misconduct, misidentification, or other testing errors by an empowered SARB:
This reform comes from the recommendations put forth by SNA in its report, those shared with the Committee by the Public Defender Service and the Innocence Project at its hearings, and the Committee’s own takeaways from its oversight.
The Laboratory would now be completely cut off from the complaint review process and be unable to dictate or influence the outcome of a complaint. The SARB would be empowered to determine how to proceed with a complaint, what information it needs from the Laboratory, and what method of investigation is appropriate to resolve the issue. It would also have access to all Laboratory papers, books, and records, and could order any corrective actions be implemented by the Director or Chief Forensic Sciences Officer. All correspondence and reports issued by the SARB would now be public documents. The SARB will play an important role in ensuring the Laboratory’s commitment to transparency.
4. Changing the qualifications and term of the Director:
The SNA report recommended that a leader with more management experience, as opposed to purely scientific expertise, run the Laboratory. The bill adopts this recommendation and also changes the Director’s term from four to six years to make the position less susceptible to political influences and transition.
5. Establishing a publicly-accessible database on the agency website where the agency must disclose all quality assurance documents:
This proposal would ensure the Laboratory’s commitment to transparency and bring it in line with best practices at other forensic labs across the country.
6. Establishing the position of Chief Forensic Sciences Officer and making it a Council-confirmed position:
This also was a recommendation put forth by SNA. The new Chief Forensic Sciences Officer would oversee all forensic science disciplines within the Laboratory and have more of a scientific and technical background. This bill proposes making the Chief Forensic Sciences Officer a Council-confirmed position to ensure that the right person is in place to oversee all forensic sciences.
DFS was established in 2012 to provide unbiased science and transparency in the provision of forensic science and public health services. The Department was created in response to a landmark National Academy of Sciences report that recommended removing forensic science services from the purview of law enforcement agencies. However, since its inception, the Department’s credibility and independence have been on tenuous footing: two agency directors have resigned after separate suspensions of the Department’s accreditation, and multiple audits have revealed damning lapses in leadership, quality assurance, training, and operations.