Mayor Annise Parker and her administration have proposed removing the city of Houston’s crime lab from the Houston Police Department, where it has resided since the 1950s. This major step toward obtaining independence for the crime lab – free from the influence of the police department, prosecutors and political leaders – would place Houston in the vanguard of the movement to create appropriate structures for conducting forensic science in the criminal justice system. Her proposal carries the promise of improving both the reality and appearance of the way forensic science is conducted in Houston. Although implementing this vision will involve significant challenges, the proposal deserves serious consideration.
The core of the mayor’s proposal is to sever the crime lab from HPD and political leaders and entrust its oversight to a local government corporation governed by an independent board of directors. This board would set policy, ensure institutional independence and integrity, and oversee sound fiscal management. The board would be guided by an advisory committee, whose members would have significant expertise in forensic science. This structure is conceptually sound: The challenge would be in ensuring the competence of the outside directors, and the level of engagement of the members of the advisory committee
Although the mayor’s proposal to separate the crime lab from the police department and reduce the risk of political influence on its operations is fundamentally sound, aspects of it merit careful examination and discussion. No reform worth doing is free from thorny questions of implementation. While on first blush, the fee-for-service model that is being proposed is attractive, it raises questions about the incentives such a system creates – for example, preference may be given to scientific work that generates the most revenue rather than work that is most important for the fair administration of justice.
Such issues are not insoluble, but they do require careful study and consideration. To her credit, Mayor Parker is advancing a bold and serious proposal to improve the quality of forensic science, and therefore the quality of justice, administered by the city of Houston. It deserves a thoughtful and constructive reception.
Bromwich called the Mayor’s proposal to make the crime lab independent “fully consistent with a comprehensive and widely acclaimed National Academy of Science review of forensic science, published in 2009, that recommended that public forensic labs be independent from police departments and prosecutors”. That’s a pretty nice endorsement from the fellow who wrote the comprehensive report on all the things that were wrong with the crime lab. Now this is only one person’s opinion, and as he notes there are still a lot of details to be worked out. We don’t know how or if the city will resolve its differences with Harris County, and there’s always the possibility of politics gumming up the works to some extent. But let’s be honest, if Bromwich had been critical of the Mayor’s proposal, that would be significant. The fact that he’s laudatory should be significant as well.