What does independence mean for a forensic laboratory?
Written by Max M. Houck, PhD   

Forensic service providers inhabit a necessary, if unique, role in the criminal justice system. The forensic sciences have many stakeholders—primarily the public they serve, but also governmental ones, including law enforcement, attorneys, and the courts. For historical and political reasons, most forensic service providers are administratively a subset of law enforcement agencies. Occupying a subordinate role in a paramilitary organization sets boundaries on the laboratory’s relationships with their parent agency and aligned agencies. For example, the laboratory director may be a sworn officer with no science education or training; this will affect the management of scientific resources depending on the officer. Think of what it would mean for a scientist to run a policing agency. Being in law enforcement also frames the way in which externalities, such as budgets, politics, and accreditation, are dealt with for the laboratory to perform adequately or succeed.

The “law enforcement” paradigm for forensic laboratories was challenged by the National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS’s) 2009 report on the forensic sciences when it recommended that forensic service providers be administratively or financially independent of law enforcement-based parent agencies. The community response varied and concerns were raised: What about political clout during the budget process? Who oversees the operations? How would the laboratory participate in investigations? What would be gained or lost through independence?

In the face of these valid questions, some jurisdictions have created independent forensic agencies to meet the challenge of the NAS committee. Washington, D.C.’s Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS) and the Houston Forensic Science LGC in Texas are but two examples of forensic laboratories that have been created independent of law enforcement. Some have already existed in that environment, such as Virginia’s Department of Forensic Sciences and Rhode Island’s Forensic Science Laboratory housed in its Department of Public Health.

Successful independence requires a greater sense of self-awareness and an objective analysis of the organization’s concept of operations (also known as CONOPS), which is the model, process, and performance of the organization (Collins 2005). Without a framework or narrative in which to fit what a forensic science laboratory is (or isn’t), uncertainty will continue about the organization’s true mission, goals, and values. Relevant to the development of that CONOPS is the notion of independence and what that means for a forensic laboratory. The recent experiences of the DC DFS may help illuminate some issues with independence, forensic service provision, and the role of forensic laboratories in the criminal justice system.

Recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences

In its 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the U.S.: A Path Forward, the NAS committee noted that most forensic science laboratories are administered by law enforcement agencies. The laboratory director therefore reports to some level of officer within the hierarchy of the agency. The NAS committee suggested that this structure brings into question the independence of the laboratory and its budget. In the committee’s view, public forensic science laboratories should be independent of or autonomous within law enforcement agencies:

“Scientific…assessment conducted in forensic investigations should be independent of law enforcement efforts either to prosecute criminal suspects or even to determine whether a criminal act has indeed been committed. Administratively, this means that forensic scientists should function independently of law enforcement administrators. The best science is conducted in a scientific setting as opposed to a law enforcement setting. Because forensic scientists often are driven in their work by a need to answer a particular question related to the issues of a particular case, they sometimes face pressure to sacrifice appropriate methodology for the sake of expediency.” (NAS 2009, 23-24)

Their vision was for the laboratory director to have a voice equivalent with or at least proportional to others in the jurisdiction and the justice system on matters involving the laboratory and related agencies. The committee felt that the laboratory should also be able to establish and maintain prioritization of cases, expenditures, and other resources while also having budgetary autonomy to set its own financial goals. It was hoped that by establishing forensic laboratories as separate but equal entities, the political and professional pressures related to the different goals, missions, and values of scientific laboratories and law enforcement agencies could be mitigated, if not resolved.

What does it take to be independent?

One CONOPS that has been offered for forensic science services is that it is an enterprise of non-profit yet production-oriented organizations staffed by knowledge workers. Forensic scientists convert physical items and data (evidence) into knowledge using (forensic) science, in the form of reports and testimony; this is their manufacturing function and their product, respectively. They specialize in simplifying this conversion of objects and data into information by rendering it into a format suitable for consumption by non-scientists. With forensic scientists providing this function, investigators and attorneys do not need to find numerous, separate individuals to conduct the specific examinations required for a case; the forensic organization provides a coherent and convenient source of valued service to stakeholders. Along with the enterprise architecture (fundamental organization of a complex program) and governance structure (management principles and decision making) (Giachetti, 2010), a CONOPS creates a holistic framework for establishing and operating forensic service providers.

DC DFS CONOPS, architecture, & governance structure


The mission of the Department is to (1) provide high-quality, timely, accurate, and reliable forensic science services with the use of best practices and best available technology, a focus on unbiased science and transparency, the goal of enhancing public safety and (2) has the authority, responsibilities, duties, assets, and functions pertaining to public health laboratory services, including disease prevention, control, and surveillance testing; emergency preparedness testing; food surveillance and testing; reference and specialized testing; integrated data management; education, training, and partnerships; special research; and seeking grants pertaining to public health laboratory services from government agencies, including the Center for Disease Control.

Enterprise Architecture

The current DC DFS is a new agency created from various and somewhat disparate portions of separate parent agencies. The current DFS Forensic Science Laboratory Division was created from the previous Metropolitan Police Department forensic units, which included DNA, fingerprints, firearms, and trace evidence. The DFS’ Public Health Laboratory Division was inherited from the DC Department of Health. The Crime Scene Sciences Division is a new effort within the DFS to civilianize crime scene response and evidence processing. Together, these three Divisions form the core of the science functions of the DFS (Figure 1). The Directorate consists of three topical Deputy Directors whose areas affect the functionality of the three Divisions: Quality, Training, and Information Technology. A business office also exists within the agency, overseen by the Chief Operations Office, and is responsible for staff who support human resources, grants, resource allocations, and safety. In this way, Division Directors focus on the core operations of their Divisions and are not distracted by administrative burdens like training oversight, quality assurance documentation that affects the whole agency, grant applications, and other types of non-core management (that is, operational science). The Division Directors and the Deputy Directors all report to the agency Deputy Director (“chief scientist”) who reports to the agency Director; a General Counsel acts as the legal arm for the agency.

Figure 1—DC DFS Enterprise Architecture


The DC DFS is part of the Public Safety and Justice Cluster within the Executive Office of the Mayor; a Deputy Mayor oversees the PSJC. Within this group, each of the agency Directors reports separately to the Deputy Mayor. Agencies include:

  • Department of Corrections
  • Department of Forensic Sciences
  • Justice Grants Administration
  • Office of Victim Services
  • Fire & Emergency Medical Services
  • Homeland Security Emergency Management Agency
  • Metropolitan Police Department
  • Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
  • Office of Unified Communications

Therefore, in the DC governance model, the DFS agency Director is equivalent in the reporting structure to the other agency Directors in this group, as well as to other agency Directors in the Mayor’s Senior Cabinet. This “separate but equal” status extends to budget autonomy as well: Proposed enhancements to baseline budgets are submitted by the agency through the Deputy Mayor’s Office to the Executive Office of the Mayor.

A summary of internal and external issues concerning independence is listed in Figure 2. Under governance, the laboratory must be able to direct itself, its processes, and have financial purview to spend its budget as it sees fit. Likewise, the agency must be perceived to be autonomous as well as actually being autonomous; the recognition must be reinforced through legislation, political support, and budget autonomy (as far as that goes in political arenas). The enterprise architecture must reflect the goals, mission, and values of the agency with the requisite tools to manage those aspects to effective and efficient success (process improvement). Externally, the outcome of these tools—data and information—must be used to explain operations, justify requests, and to measure service to stakeholders: to paraphrase George Lois, government work is 1 percent inspiration, 9 percent perspiration, and 90 percent justification. Finally, the concept of operations must embody the better practices (there are no best practices; anything can be improved) and community standards to yield valid methods to achieve the goals, mission, and values of the agency. Science and quality must come before political needs. To do this, externally, the laboratory must be free and have the clout to establish negotiated boundaries of professional responsibility with aligned stakeholders (police, attorneys, and the courts, for example). Much of this comes through communicating what is possible (managing expectations) and sustaining the relationships through “teachable moments”.

Figure 2—Issues of independence, internal and external
  Internal External
Governance Model Self-direction and control of processes; reinforcement of principles and autonomy Agreement to independence: Legislation, policies, protocols, etc.; accreditation; budget autonomy
Enterprise Model FORESIGHT
Management of resources to achieve stated goal(s)
Justification for operations; location and state in environment
Concept of Operations Incorporate external components into protocols; science and quality come first Establish negotiated boundaries of professional responsibility; maintain relationships through managing expectations


Independence is not a panacea, of course. The professional disaster at the Hinton, Mass. laboratory where Annie Dookhan worked was part of the Department of Health when the problems occurred, for example. And no government agency is truly independent; they serve the leaders the people of their jurisdiction elected. Removing forensic service providers from administrative oversight by law enforcement (to include prosecutor’s offices) does, however, address the “fox guarding the hen house” issue. Those responsible for acting on the jurisdiction’s or defendant’s behalf in court are not in charge of the neutral arbiter of facts that support or refute criminal allegations. The implication is not that all law enforcement oversight of laboratory functions is biased but that—purely based on mandated responsibilities—the potential for that particular brand of bias is greater than if the laboratories were independent. Other types of bias may occur but, as an independent agency, the laboratory can at least act on them without collateral repercussions and resistance due to professional cultural differences (Harris 2012).

The question remains, however: How will the community move forward to evaluate and implement any new or adjusted business models for independent forensic laboratories? The need for strategic leadership in forensic science is critical and the lack of a historical systems-level view has slowed the development of strong strategic leadership. Forensic service providers, traditionally under law enforcement agencies, have had few opportunities to have a collective, distinctive political voice that served them alone. Whether the change is evolutionary or revolutionary remains to be seen; “the true measure of a successful revolution is the realization there is no going back” (Davis 2013).

Note: Some of the material in this article appeared in Houck, M. and Speaker, P. In Press. “Developing new models for forensic science: The business of forensics,” in Hickman. M. (ed.) Forensic Science and the Administration of Justice, Sage Publications.

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is the Director of the Department of Forensic Sciences at the District of Columbia Consolidated Forensic Laboratories.


Collins, J. 2005. Good to Great and the Social Sectors. Boulder, CO: Jim Collins.

Davis, W. 2013. Revolution. Smithsonian Magazine May:11-12.

Harris, D. 2012. Failed Evidence: Why Law Enforcement Resists Science. New York University Press: New York City.

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Item of Interest

The language barrier between English-speaking investigators and Spanish-speaking witnesses is a growing problem. (Updated 28 February 2011)