Who's to blame for the problems at the Nassau County police crime laboratory?
The lack of specific responsibility for overseeing the facility these last eight years is one of the main ingredients in its extraordinary failures. Making sure it's clear whose heads will roll if similar problems crop up in the future must be a main ingredient in the solution.
The impressively detailed report by State Inspector General Ellen Biben's office after an eight-month investigation includes a long roster of people and organizations that should have corrected or reported the substandard operation of the lab.
The lab supervisor himself, a uniformed officer, is first on the list. His culpability, though, does not excuse his superiors in the police department and its commissioner; Nassau officials, including then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi and his deputies who relied on the police department for supervision; the private accrediting agency that repeatedly reviewed the lab; the state's Commission on Forensic Science, charged with making sure the state's labs measure up; and even the district attorney's office and defense lawyers, who weren't doing enough questioning of the lab's methods and results.
The root of the problem was multifaceted: Lab managers and workers were selected even though they lacked technical or scientific skills. Staffers who were police officers were covered by a union contract that prohibited any evaluation of their performance. Two former police commissioners told Biben the union considered evaluations nonnegotiable. The physical plant was in disrepair and poorly designed for its function. The culture was lackadaisical. And no one up the chain of command, inside the force or out, wanted to know or had the scientific background to understand the scope of the problems.
The upshot is that thousands of drug samples are being retested in a Pennsylvania facility, at a cost of millions of dollars. So far, 13 percent of the original tests have shown (usually minor) discrepancies. That's a lot. Chemical, blood-alcohol and fingerprint samples are already being retested. Now Biben wants every type of evidence the lab worked with to be reviewed, including fire debris, hair, firearms and blood. It will be costly, but these tests were used as evidence in criminal cases that often cost those convicted their freedom and their reputations. Confidence in the justice system must be restored.
Nassau plans to open a new crime lab next year. It should be staffed by properly trained civilians whose skills are evaluated regularly. The head of the lab must be a scientific professional whose chain of command is clear and who keeps county officials, police brass and the district attorney's office notified of the lab status. Accreditation evaluations should be made public, and the state's Commission on Forensic Science must actually fulfill its legal oversight role.
The lab has been a disaster since it opened in 2003. If anyone in the chain of command had the proper information, this problem wouldn't have gone on so long, nor caused so much damage, expense and injustice.