Interview with an Expert

The increasing importance of professional certification and accreditation

An exclusive Evidence Technology Magazine interview with Don Wyckoff

To gain an inside perspective on the topic of certification and accreditation, we went to the organization most experts in law enforcement consider their main source for laboratory accreditation: the Laboratory Accreditation Board of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD/LAB). We began our interview with a basic question about how certification and accreditation are perceived in today’s judicial system :

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What is the relative importance of certification and accreditation in today’s courtroom?

WYCKOFF: From what I’ve seen across the country, there seems to be a greater emphasis placed on accreditation than certification. Of course, it depends on where you’re located. Some people definitely want to see accreditation for laboratories—and they don’t consider certification to be as important as accreditation right now. But I think that will change in the future.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: And is this weighing of importance coming from the court system or law enforcement?

WYCKOFF: I think it is coming from the court system, as well as from our own profession. Let me backtrack a little here and tell you something about ASCLD/LAB. We accredit about 335 laboratories in the United States. That is about 85 to 90 percent of the forensic laboratories in the nation—and it involves close to 10,000 practitioners, most of whom are forensic scientists. That’s accreditation. If I am not mistaken, there are fewer than 1,000 people who are currently certified in the United States. So you can see only about 10 percent of all practicing forensic scientists have certification. When you look at it like that, accreditation seems to be more important today in the criminal-justice system than certification. But of course, that may change down the road.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: When?

WYCKOFF: Well, even as we are talking, there is a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee that is meeting to discuss this matter. And if they were to recommend both certification and accreditation, then there would be a big increase in the number of people who would have to be certified.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Well, in your opinion, is certification important to law enforcement today?

WYCKOFF: I think it is. Nobody likes to take the required tests. But by the same token, when you take them you find out what you know and what you don’t know, from the basics of our science to the intricate details. And that’s good. The other thing that is important about certification is that it requires you to stay current in your profession. Generally certification requires the scientist to continually train, proficiency test, and remain current on research in your discipline. And all of that can help as far as making you a better scientist.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What if a person is not certified? Are there consequences in the courtroom?
WYCKOFF: I suppose there could be. But I don’t think that is a big issue right now because a judge can tell the jury whether or not they should accept the opinion of the practitioner who is giving testimony.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Should a laboratory or an agency encourage its personnel to get certification?

WYCKOFF: Yes. I believe that encouraging personnel to get certification is a good thing. However, the problem that concerns everyone is this: Who is going to pay for the certification? And then there is the follow-up problem: Once you become certified, will your agency allow you the time and give you help in staying certified? Staying certified requires that you attend training and do other work in addition to just doing casework. I do believe that certification is something everyone should have. Simply stated, it helps individual practitioners—and it also helps our profession in the long run.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: And there is always something new in this field.

WYCKOFF: I know. It has been 30 years or more since I was in school, but I can remember professors telling me, “You have to continue your training while you’re working because what you learn today will be old or obsolete within seven to ten years.” And at the rate technology is changing today, that time range has probably shortened to just five to seven years.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Should the agencies require certification? Doesn’t the State of Idaho require its state lab people to be certified?

WYCKOFF: Yes, it does. We may be the only state in the nation that has that requirement. There are other states that have a large percentage of their forensic scientists that are certified. It was an idea that was being pushed in some areas around 15 years ago. Personally, I think it would be a good idea. And it could happen soon.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: How soon do you think? Five years? Ten years?

WYCKOFF: I would say that in many areas certification will be mandatory within the next five to seven years.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: And could it happen any sooner than that?

WYCKOFF: Well, it could. But the likelihood of it happening in less than five years is fairly low. Why? Because it is going to take time for people in the law-enforcement agencies to prepare for these things and then do them. One of the biggest concerns the forensics profession has is manpower. For us to be able to move to full certification while continuing to put out the day-to-day casework in a timely manner—well, it is going to require some time. That’s why I think five years could be the very low end of the timeframe.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Would there be a sourcing problem? Are there enough qualified sources for training and certification now?

WYCKOFF: Yes. There are a number of qualified sources available. Just to name a few: There is the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) and the International Association for Identifica-tion (IAI). The ABC offers certification in those disciplines that are generally considered to be part of classical crime laboratories: serology, DNA, firearms, controlled substances—that kind of thing. The IAI specializes in certification for a variety of disciplines, such as fingerprints, bloodstain pattern analysis, crime-scene investigation, forensic art, and photography. There is also the American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT) and the Forensic Toxicologist Certification Board (FTCB) that deal with that discipline. And there is also the International Association of Blood-stain Pattern Analysts (IABPA). That is not a complete list, of course. There are many sources for certification.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: But a person has to go through training first, isn’t that correct?
WYCKOFF: If you have been actively practicing in the system for a while, then I believe that you could probably pass the certification tests with a marginal amount of restudy. If you have not been actively practicing, then it would require more study time. If you are a practicing scientist, you are going to find it relatively easier to earn certification than the person who is just coming out of school with no background in the field.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Of course…

WYCKOFF: And that’s the other thing about certification: How soon after you get onto the job is certification going to be required? For the laboratory system that I was in, it was three years. That’s probably a pretty good number. I think it would be difficult for someone with less on-the-job time than that to get certified. Of course, if you’re able to read and absorb information quickly, you may be one of those people who can do it in under three years.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Let’s shift to the subject of accreditation. How many labs are accredited or not accredited in the United States?

WYCKOFF: There are 335 forensic laboratories in the United States that are currently accredited by ASCLD/LAB. As far as the total number of practicing laboratories, we figure there are somewhere between 350 and 400 state, local, and federal laboratories that specialize in doing forensic work.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What are the requirements for qualifying lab personnel in accredited laboratories?

WYCKOFF: The requirements depend on the specific discipline. Generally speaking, you have to have a college degree, although those in some of the comparison sciences—like latent fingerprints—are only required to have some science training. Some disciplines are going to require a college degree: chemistry, toxicology, or DNA, for example. And in some of these disciplines, it is getting to the point that even a Baccalaureate degree is not enough for today’s workplace. Some of them require a Masters degree.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Are there other sources of accreditation other than ASCLD/LAB? Where else can one go for accreditation?

WYCKOFF: There is Forensic Quality Services-International (FQS-I). And there are probably other laboratory accrediting boards, although they are not solely for forensic science. There are lots of International Standards Organization (ISO) accrediting bodies that accredit laboratories in general. I think ASCLD/LAB and FQS-I are the two main bodies that focus on classical forensic laboratories and some of the police crime units.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: How do you feel about the status of forensic science with regard to this topic?

WYCKOFF: In my opinion, our profession has done a very good job over the years. We have been able to prepare for change and then actually make the necessary adjustments to deal with the concerns and problems. I remember when I started 30 years ago, there was some publicity about problems in the profession. And we dealt with that fairly quickly over the next three or four years. I started in 1979 and by 1982, ASCLD/LAB had accredited its first laboratories. And it has been growing at a rate of 10 to 15 percent per year since then.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What would you tell a person working in a forensic laboratory about the future?

WYCKOFF: What do I see coming down the road? I think we are going to see a big growth in accreditation and certification in the near future. I think there is probably going to be a move to standardize certain methods. I think there’s going to be a lot more scrutiny by both sides of the criminal justice group—the defense and the prosecution side—to make sure that people are qualified and can actually do what they say they do. I think the defense side of criminal justice is going to gain parity with the prosecution side in the knowledge that they have about forensic science. At the present time, I don’t think many defense attorneys understand everything that is going on, nor do they know where they can get experts to help them analyze what is being reported. And I think there will be some changes in who does work in laboratories, and even what kind of work is done in laboratories. In short, I think we could see some very big changes in technology in the next five to ten years.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What do you mean by that?

WYCKOFF: Well, I think you’re going to see more miniaturization. I think you are going to see many things that are going to be—I don’t know what the right word is—almost cookbookish in the sense that they will be very routine-oriented in nature. That will probably happen even with things like DNA. We are approaching that in some respects right now. There is nothing bad about that approach. It just means that you get greater productivity in casework, which is very important in any public laboratory because of the large number of cases. This approach allows the laboratory people to put out results for routine cases fairly rapidly. And that will free them to work on the unusual cases that require special handling of evidence and material.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: It sounds like some people would not like this particular approach…

WYCKOFF: A lot of people say that having standardized procedures is bad because it implies that forensic scientists are nothing more than technicians. A positive point is that it would allow us to turn out routine work more quickly and would give us time to do the other things that are important.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What kind of “cookbookish” routines do you mean? Will it speed up the work?

WYCKOFF: Yes. For example: Let’s say someone brings you a blood sample—or some white powder—to identify. Some of these procedures have gotten to the point where they are automated so that someone can just take a small sample, put it in an instrument, and get a result out of it. I think you’re going to see some continuing automation and better reagents and control samples and extraction procedures that are going to make that whole process even faster than it is right now.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: How fast?

WYCKOFF: Well, for example: A drug analysis that now takes from four to six hours could get down to just two hours. Or in certain instances, a DNA analysis may get down to a few hours —or a day or two at most. And, that’s not bad. I know there are going to be some who are going to say, “Well, that just proves that these people that we consider scientists are really just technicians.” But I disagree, because you still have to interpret those results—and that will take a real scientist. And, in fact, what it does is it gives us the time to get the relatively routine things finished while giving us more time to work on other more complex or more unusual criminal cases.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Do you have any other thoughts about what the future will have to offer for those in the profession?

WYCKOFF: Changes are coming— whether the profession wants them or not. Most of us like the fact that things are becoming more automated. It takes a little bit of the pressure off of us, too, because one of the biggest complaints against public laboratories has been slow turn-around time. In my opinion, however, forensic scientists who work in public laboratories have many other tasks they must deal with. They probably testify more often than people in the private laboratories and they are oftentimes called on to do routine crime-scene work. So, there are many things that take away from their ability to be as productive as someone who deals with just sample analysis on a daily basis.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Thank you for speaking with us today.

 


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED:
March-April 2008 (Volume 6, Number 2)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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