Monday, January 25, 2010

A reader's response

"Tiffany" writes in response to my piece on sub-disciplines. Rather than just post it as a comment, I decided to feature it as a new post - with my comments included.

Tiffany: "I don't feel that the federal government is pushing toward ownerships of local/regional labs. In fact, I just the opposite. Reading the author's intentions in that way, in my opinion, is a misunderstanding of what recent government watchdogs are attempting to do in the field of Forensics. Scientific working groups and advisory boards are not trying to excercize ownership or control over regional and local labs at all, in my opinion. "

Response: First, let me start by saying that "Tiffany" doesn't identify herself. So her opinions and feelings are nice, but it's hard to get a sense of who she is and where she's coming from - there's no "expert power" in her note when it comes in anonymously. Next, I didn't say that the feds want to "own" things ... just that they are using their power to influence at the expense of the privateer and the state and local, who don't have the "weight" or "juice" that the feds have. Having sat in a SWG as a local, I've got a bit on insight to back this opinion up.

"I will agree that the federal government is making a push for standardization. I'm sure we can both agree this goal is important and completely necessary, if not long overdue. I believe, in the interest of the integrity of the profession, the federal government is stepping in as a means of creating some type of uniformity from state to state and lab to lab. Although it's beneficial, these state and local do not have to perform testing in disciplines in which they are not accredited and can opt to send material out to other accredited labs. Or they can choose to sufficiently train analysts and bring their own analysts into compliance."

Notice the tone here ... they don't have to ... they can choose to ... very paternalistic. State/Local/Privateer want to be free to choose for them selves. I have every confidence that a professional will choose wisely. That being said, budget issues are real and have to be considered.

The purpose of this is not for the federal government to control these labs, but to ensure a minimum level of analyst ability has been acheived at each lab. The profession can no longer afford to have underqualified analysts and laboratories performing tests and issuing results with such important implications without first ensuring the accuracy and ability of the analysts and labs to perform testing in those areas.

Interesting that "Tiffany" now speaks for "the profession." I really wish she would have introduced herself. Often readers write in and ask that their name be withheld ... it's never a problem.

The information contained in the NAS can not be ignored. I feel the argument about shrinking funds is weak. I understand that local LE agencies that rely on one analyst to process across several disciplines is still acceptable, provided that analyst has demonstrated proficiency compared not only to the other analysts within that lab, but also compared to the rest of the labs in the country. Why should the standards of education and proficiency be lower because a lab is smaller? Or because they have a smaller budget? Uniformity in analysis, reporting methods and analyst education levels should be maintained to ensure the quality of the work product. Should that not be the most important goal?

The argument about shrinking funds is real ... just ask the furloughed employees in the state of California, and elsewhere. The "standards for education" don't exist as such. There are no degrees in video forensics yet. There are only training programs from groups like LEVA and NaTIA. Uniformity in process can be achieved without an unfunded mandate towards uniformity in "education."

If one analyst demonstrates capability across disciplines consistent with the professional standards that would be perfectly acceptable with federal governmental regulations. So, no... you do not have to choose a specialty. However, you should have the requisite experience, course work and continuing education to ensure the quality of the work is on par with the rest of the country in each discipline.

I like the "perfectly acceptable" part. This is the tone that scares most of us in the small cities. Someone out there is going to decide if we can keep our jobs vs. competing in the marketplace of ideas ... discussion, debate, proof of concept, etc.

In my opinion, the author of this article was just pointing out the difficulty of implementing guidelines and reccommendations for each laboratory due to the wide range of services being performed across the nation. How can standardization occur without first setting guidelines and making reccommendations? I do no believe the profession is being driven toward one vendor's practice, but rather a uniform practice. These SWG's and accreditation boards are comprised of analysts from many different state and local labs. This isn't just the FBI or the ATF going out and telling people how to perform testing.

Uniform practices are one thing. My point is: what the Federal government funds, it owns. In the case of the SWGs, a worthy effort mind you, the Federal government has ownership of the process ... as it controls the purse strings. Places like Hillsdale College refuse federal money because they don't want to be told how to run their business. SWGs are not as independent as they appear ... as the process is weighted towards the funding source. I'm not saying this in a conspiratorial way ... it's just a matter of fact. The feds pay and thus they control the process. It's not good or bad per se, it just is.

I feel the quality and integrity of the work being done should be the priority. I do not feel we have the ability to allow them to "rise to the top" in a "competitive way." In this model, there would still be some labs putting out unreliable work. This is unacceptable. The stakes are too high and potential for injustice too great. It almost seems like a gamble. Why take that unecessary chance that some lab practices would not be those 'best practices'? Why not take steps to ensure all labs just automatically use the 'best practices'? The purpose isn't to drive anyone out, but to bring them up to code with the rest of the country, budgets aside.

In a true competitive model, the best would not only be determined by price but in quality of service, reliability, and so forth.  And, again, "budgets  aside"? No, budgets are everything these days. Remember the golden rule ... he with the gold makes the rules. Right now, the states and cities are going broke. The last thing they need is another unfunded mandate from the Feds.

Thanks, "Tiffany," for writing in.


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