Outsourcing Forensic Analysis
Written by Dale Garrison   

Portable Talent Helps Solve Local Crimes

OUTSOURCING OPTIONS for forensic analysis have increased in quantity and diversity in recent years. For some agencies, outsourcing services to an independent laboratory or consulting firm may even be the preferred choice. Prosecutors, public defenders, and law-enforcement agencies of any size are increasingly accessing at least some part of this growing range of outsourcing services.

Every agency has its own reasons for seeking forensic services from an independent source, but some of the top reasons include: a temporary need for additional manpower; the occasional crime scene that presents evidence that is especially challenging to collect and process; or backlogs that just need to be cleared quickly.

Tight Budgets

Ron Smith, president of Ron Smith & Associates, Inc., a forensic consulting firm headquartered in Mississippi, noted that the downturn in the general economy has played a major role in the increased demand for forensic outsourcing. Reduced funding for training, inability to fill vacancies, and other belt-tightening measures added to an environment where local expertise was scarce—just when it was needed most. For several years, Smith’s firm has provided training and consulting support for federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies in multiple forensic disciplines. In that time, he has seen firsthand the effects of the current economy on law enforcement.

“At the start of 2009, we projected there would be a 25-percent reduction in available training dollars for the next 24 to 36 months,” said Smith. “So far, that number has been hovering around 18 percent, and we hope it has reached the bottom.”

Smith, who retired as an associate director of the Mississippi Crime Laboratory, drew upon his experience with state crime laboratories to try to anticipate the effects of the economy on law enforcement.

“Having been a laboratory director myself, I also knew that these tough economic times would have a significant impact on the forensic backlogs that exist across the country,” said Smith. “Our business model projected an increase of approximately 30 percent within our consulting division in 2009, but that increase has actually been in excess of 50 percent over the last 12 months—and shows no sign of slowing down.”

Another provider of outsourcing services is using the latest networking technology to bring the talent and knowledge of experienced, certified latent-print examiners to any agency that might need their help. Kasey Wertheim is president and CEO of Complete Consultants Worldwide, an organization based in West Virginia that utilizes nationwide expertise and a special software platform to allow practical—and secure—examination of latent-fingerprint samples at remote locations.

In plain English, Wertheim loads digital copies of latent prints into a job queue on a network of more than 40 experienced examiners, most who work from their homes. The key to achieving this kind of transfer in a discreet and secure manner is a unique, multi-user, web-based system that ensures efficiency and security through a virtual private network. Not only can agencies access—almost instantly—top examiners across the country, but multiple examiners can also verify a difficult print or bring various areas of expertise to a tough case.

“What we have done is follow the idea of outsourcing latent-print comparisons to the next level by creating the software platform to allow our consultants to do efficient taskwork securely from home,” Wertheim said. “They are still employed by their agencies full time or are working on other projects, but we can transfer work to them that really benefits from their advanced expertise and experience.”

According to Smith, the use of secure Internet transmission has become one of the most rapidly advancing methods of providing forensic-expert services by Ron Smith & Associates. “The very best-of-the-best can team up to provide the client with an opinion that has taken into account all that the sciences can provide,” said Smith. “It is not unusual to have a consultant in California conduct the initial examination, an expert in Canada employ additional imaging techniques to the original image, and experts in North Carolina and England review the results to arrive at the conclusion—which is verified in Mississippi before the report is issued.”

This kind of collaborative examination has posed no problems in court, added Smith, and he said he does not anticipate that it ever will.

More with Less

On-site outsourcing, remote networking technology, and everything in between are impacted by a convergence of factors. Law-enforcement agencies—even the smaller organizations—are required to process growing quantities of evidence despite static or shrinking staff numbers. Simultaneously, staff levels are often frozen or reduced at local agencies, as well as at the regional and state facilities that once provided more assistance to local agencies. Fortunately, increasingly sophisticated technology is making the experts easier to access no matter where they are.

Wertheim’s work with fingerprints illustrates several important elements of the growing industry. Complete Consultants Worldwide, launched in 2004, involves a network of approximately 40 examiners connected via proprietary software that ensures important procedural considerations such as security and chain of custody. For example: The system logs unique information about each fingerprint image throughout the process, so the submitting agency knows the image they provided is the same one that led to an important conclusion.

“The main user of our new service would be local law-enforcement agencies,” Wertheim said. “Many times, the smaller agencies do not have the resources to retain a staff of latent examiners, let alone a second examiner to verify that examination. If they have a string of major crimes that need to be solved quickly, this is a real answer. We could match prints in hours, not a matter of weeks or months.”

Security is an obvious concern, especially for Wertheim’s larger government projects, such as with the Department of Defense (DOD). But Wertheim noted the challenges for forensics in some ways are no greater than other fields.

“The medical community has been outsourcing X-ray examinations and other tests securely for years,” he noted. “If privacy can be addressed in the medical industry, it certainly can be addressed for the forensics field.”

A key to the Complete Consultants Worldwide program is that digital duplicates are transferred using a secure network for communications, meaning among other things that originals remain with the responsible agency. Wertheim’s system provides tools for individual examiners—including side-by-side screens with annotation tools, enhancement capabilities, and everything necessary for top-level work, even from the examiner’s home office.

“Our system has a full set of tools for examiners to do their work,” he said, “from zooming and rotating to enhancing and annotating images during the examination process. What we are able to do is create the entire system for them through a secure, web-based portal. The image transmission is actually the easy part.”

In fact, fingerprints were excellent candidates for what Wertheim sees as the start of a major trend. He foresees increasing opportunity for consultants working from home or other remote locations to bring advanced or specialized expertise to bear on projects from virtually any location. Fingerprints are a good starting point because, despite the necessary visual detail, their graphic images are relatively small—something of a sweet spot for current technology.

“The drawback in image comparison is mainly centered around the large image sizes that forensic disciplines utilize,” he explained. “A 1,000-ppi footprint image is an enormous file compared to a fingerprint. Firearms examination involves smaller images but with incredible detail at high resolutions. Fingerprints are more of a manageable size. You are dealing with a file that can be easily transferred using present technology and broadband download speeds.”

On-Site Expertise

Both Complete Consultants Worldwide and Ron Smith & Associates provide on-site work as well. Even here, technology and “transportable” expertise play a role. Teams of specialists can be sent to a location temporarily, providing everything from evidence examination to performance audits and training.

Smith, who has played the role of consultant for 22 years, said he began compiling lists of “trouble areas” that often plague agencies. “I started thinking about this years ago and kept making lists of those things that government was struggling with,” he said. Help, said Smith, is requested for a variety of reasons. “It may be Friday afternoon and an agency has three examiners out with the flu. Or they may just have a backlog.”

Another area of growing demand is related to regional and national shortages of experts in certain forensic specialties. “We believe that because of the shortage of latent-print examiners around the country, there will be a steady demand and increase for outsourced latent-print examiners over the next year,” Smith said. “It is just the nature of the business right now.”

Also a student of the challenges faced by law-enforcement agencies, Wertheim had a “eureka” moment when he realized that large numbers of agencies often require very specialized or expert print examination—enough to represent a significant market for a centralized service despite the high level of expertise and the equipment that is required.

Wertheim’s moment came while assisting with a massive volume of comparisons for the DOD. A series of teams had been created to work remotely on thousands of print identifications that had accumulated with the military. He realized that such a need for case help was not limited to large agencies but was present nationwide in police and sheriff’s departments. In fact, while the demand by a single agency may not be great, the total on a regional or national scale is enormous.

“When I was working with the DOD, I realized that individual police offices might not have that same volume, but in total we could still support a lot of small workloads the same way we could support one large workload,” Wertheim explained. “That got me to thinking about some of the other benefits of creating a job-queue web portal, such as the fast turn-around time, blind verification, difficult comparisons, and other issues. Sometimes an agency just wants a second or third comparison on something that has been a difficulty in-house.”

Some of the issues are as much administrative or procedure-driven as directly related to individual case evidence. For example, in some cases an agency might benefit greatly from having a single print verified by multiple examiners—or to cross-check the work of an in-house examiner who may be having problems. “This lets them get as many certified examiners as they want,” Wertheim explained. “If you’re dealing with something that they believe is difficult, that would be a big help. And, if you have a question on your examination, and it comes back differently from six other examiners, perhaps that examiner needs some help. Or even if it’s just a matter of in-house results being split, then outsourcing would give you objective data for writing the report.”

Best and Brightest

Whether they fly in by plane or surf in by secure network, the professionalism of the outsourced expert is a fundamental element of the work. Both Smith and Wertheim use a similar pool of talent: retired or off-duty professionals who are often among the top specialists in their field. They are certified, experienced, and available at a moment’s notice.

“If an agency has three examiners out with the flu, I can have three IAI-certified examiners in there to fill the gap,” said Smith.

Smith said locating good examiners to work in this unique mode is time-consuming but not impossible. “A lot of people like the extra work and will take vacations or comp time to do it,” he said, adding that about 70 contractors support his firm’s full-time staff of 17. “We can pull people for the specific needs of clients.”

Wertheim uses a similar philosophy. “There are always good people interested in part-time work,” he said. “Right now, I have a list of 40 part-time specialists ready to engage in consulting all over the country.”

One of Wertheim’s associates is Kathleen Birnbaum, a veteran forensic technician from Pima County, Arizona, which includes Tucson. After joining the sheriff’s department there in 1977, she spent 16 years as a forensic technician and later switched to latent-print examination. Although she retired from full-time service in 2008, she continues to work with the department, training the new examiners and providing contract services. She has worked with Wertheim’s firm on several different projects, both on-location and from her home office.

“Much of it can be done from home with occasional trips,” she said. “The need is growing almost every day.”

From the Beginning

Some of Birnbaum’s broadest experience with outsourced work involved those early uses of remote examination to help the DOD identify military-service personnel—and occasionally terrorists—as part of the Wounded Warrior project. The work had several unusual angles.

“We were given secure access to data from several databases in order to identify latent prints,” she said. “We would never know who we were identifying and we were doing all of this remotely. It proved that remote examination services work, even on a large scale.

“We even added four names to the watch list,” Birnbaum said, explaining that prints were found on items such as bomb fragments. “We cleared out a lot of stuff that never would have been looked at. If you have a limited number of examiners plus some very difficult identifications, it can be tough. Of course, the difficult identifications are always the ones that are left.”

For Birnbaum, a real plus was working to train wounded veterans in fingerprint examination. “A lot of these young guys were sent to Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever, where they were wounded. They are thinking their careers are over but if we can help get them trained to work in this high-demand field, that really opens doors.”

Birnbaum’s experience working with a sheriff’s department also allows her to understand the battle faced by many agencies in the United States, including small ones. In fact, smaller agencies are sometimes the most hard-pressed to access top-level fingerprint identification that is critical in solving and prosecuting crime.

“What happens at some of these small agencies is an officer is injured so they put them in fingerprints for a while,” she said. “The reality is, there is a lot of training and everything needs to be verified by another examiner. There is proper methodology. You will hear people talk about print examination and they will say, ‘Oh, I used to do that.’ But what they were working on was something almost anyone could do.”

Wertheim said managers sometimes overlook the need for adequate expertise and technology. “Even sheriffs or police chiefs may not realize that to do a thorough examination of a latent print it sometimes requires a high degree of expertise,” he said. “Some prints really can be difficult. You hear of identification problems reported in the news and you have to wonder at the experience level of the person who made the examination.”

Common in many industries, outsourcing allows an agency to bring in help or additional expertise when it is needed. “This outsourcing allows you to have access to very experienced people, but you don’t need to employ them full time,” Birnbaum said. “If you have a difficult case, you can access some of the best people available. That is a real strength.”

Another component of the work addresses that even more directly: training. Both of these companies are involved to varying degrees in providing help for agencies needing to boost the skills and accreditation of their own staff. Smith and his firm are even opening a 5,000 square foot lab in Florida in conjunction with the National Forensics Science Center.

Long-Distance Operators

One question often raised involves the possibility of requiring a remote consultant to testify, which could become expensive. That happens—although the consultants often make powerful witnesses that more than outweigh transportation and other costs. More often, however, agencies can run their own tests after outside expertise initially identify the need; courtroom testimony can then be provided by the agency’s own local staff.

“All of our people are qualified to testify,” Smith said. “But often what happens is we do the backlog, but only a small percentage gets all the way to trial. Then, when that happens, the agency can re-do those few cases. It is a very cost-efficient business—you outsource the preliminary then rework those cases that are actually going to court. We go to court, but not that often.”

Wertheim noted a similar model of efficiency with client agencies that often use his service for the most demanding or extreme cases—those that most need identification but are difficult to identify. In one case, the agency requested that his consultants focus on AFIS exclusions, thus limiting the likelihood of being called to testify while still accomplishing the vast majority of their work.

“We only reported AFIS ‘exclusion’ or ‘unable to exclude’ conclusions back to the agency, then they would perform more analysis,” he said. “That is a novel approach. It reduces the total volume and focuses our work where it is best applied. It drastically reduces their workload because they are not looking at what some have termed ‘nuisance comparisons’ and it frees their staff to focus on the most likely possibilities to resolve a case and testify.”

Good evidence regarding the effectiveness of such work also comes from “the other side” of the law-enforcement spectrum. Defenders, including public defenders, frequently retain both of these firms. Smith also noted his organization’s frequent work with the Innocence Project. Although more often retained by law enforcement, both professionals said their operations provide solid results regardless of which side of the courtroom is making the request.

“We don’t have a ‘side,’” Smith said. “We work and use good scientific processes. It does not matter who asks the questions, the answer is going to be the same. It’s not like we are working on the dark side. There is no dark side if you have integrity.”

Likewise, local examiners who understand their work are not bothered by the presence of outside assistance. “They are glad it is us doing some of those cases because they know they’ll get a fair answer,” Smith said. “I know when I worked directly in law enforcement I had no problem with qualified experts looking at my work. We are often referred by agencies, so obviously there is no resentment there.”

Most of all, this outsourced expertise places top-level talent within the reach of almost every organization. Noting a recent study on fingerprint-examiner error, Wertheim said the biggest theme was that human mistakes—namely missed identifications— cause most of the problems, not technology.

“Many think the computer does everything when in fact it is up to the person running the search itself,” Wertheim concluded. “The person needs to have the expertise to make difficult comparisons. That’s really what counts.”

Contact Information:
For more information about the two outsourcing providers mentioned in this article, go to their websites:
Ron Smith & Associates, Inc.
www.ronsmithandassociates.com
Complete Consultants Worldwide
www.clpex.com/ccw

About the Author

Dale Garrison is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the magazine. He is based in Liberty, Missouri and can be reached by e-mail at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED:
"Outsourcing Forensic Analysis," written by Dale Garrison
January-February 2010 (Volume 8, Number 1)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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