The forensic evidence lab at police heaquarters in Mineola.

The forensic evidence lab at police heaquarters in Mineola. Credit: Nassau County Police Department

When the extent of the problems at the Nassau County Police Department crime laboratory, including fingerprints unsealed, evidence unsecured, machines uncalibrated and workers untrained, became public, the lab was shut down in February.

But when similar problems were found in 2003 -- leading to the facility's first probation in 2006 -- little happened. Why?

Probation is a significant penalty, and uncommon for such labs. But Nassau's received another one in 2010 -- the only one of 400 similar labs across the country to do so.

The county is now having its testing done by an independent lab, at a cost of more than $100,000 per month. Evidence in 3,000 cases is being retested. And the state's inspector general, Ellen Biben, is investigating who knew what, when, and whether shortcomings were compounded into conspiracy by attempts to hide them.

Biben should address three questions:

How could the lab be allowed to operate so poorly for so long?

What must be done to rectify the problems?

Do the issues at the lab -- ones of procedure, accountability and leadership -- reflect problems throughout the county's entire police department?

The lab was manned largely by detectives, and there's broad agreement that it was understaffed. That's poor management. Why were detectives needed when the skills are technical, and a staff of more specifically trained (and lower paid) specialists might always have been better? And police union contracts prohibited any regular evaluation of whether sworn lab staff had the needed technical skills.

A staff of civilian specialists makes the most sense. A lab like New York City's, staffed by police officers who can be evaluated, is workable. But a lab like Nassau's, staffed with officers who cannot be evaluated, reprimanded or penalized, is disastrous.

The Nassau County Police Department is deeply insular. Outsiders can be hired only at the bottom, as patrolmen, or at the top, like the chief and a few deputies. Detectives, sergeants, lieutenants, captains and most brass must rise from within.

With so few newcomers, little gets shaken up and best practices are rarely imported from other departments. Such an outsider might have asked why there are no evaluations, or put rules in place requiring that the negative lab ratings in 2003 and 2006 be reported to top management.

Looking ahead, it is clear that lab accrediting agencies should send its evaluations to the commissioner and the district attorney, rather than simply giving them to the lab itself, as is common.

Public opinion has shifted on the lack of meaningful evaluations of teachers and contracts that hamstring effective management of Long Island's schools. Nassau police receive far better compensation than teachers, yet there is still no way to measure the competence of individuals in the department.

That the lab ran improperly for so long, and the problems were kept quiet, is unacceptable. But the way the shortcomings were supposedly kept from the top brass and county executive reflects larger problems within the department, its leadership, its structure and its culture. All that must be addressed if anything is to change.