Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Michael Bromwich

HPD crime lab update

The man who wrote the report detailing all of the HPD crime lab’s problems was back to give a progress report on how things look now.

Michael Bromwich

Houston police managers at the once-shuttered crime lab have failed to re-examine tests on DNA, blood and most other forensic evidence on a random basis to ensure the results are accurate, according to a follow-up report by the nationally known forensic expert hired to investigate the facility.

The crime lab, under Houston Police Department management, continues to outsource several integral testing services common for the lab, including a type of firearms testing that determines how far a gun was from a target when it was fired, Michael Bromwich’s report noted. That information is crucial in the investigation of officer-involved shootings.

But overall, Bromwich concluded, HPD has done a “responsible job” implementing many recommendations he made in 2007 following an extensive, two-year investigation after the lab was closed due to flawed testing procedures and practices.

“We were very encouraged with what we saw in our review of the crime lab,” Bromwich said this past week. “The most pronounced improvement was the quality of senior managers in the lab.”

Bromwich also said the city’s lab, at the police headquarters building at 1200 Travis, is not big enough for the current workload and needs a “significant” amount of additional space. City leaders said they have no plan to move the facility, although some on City Council favor merging operations with a new forensic center being built by Harris County.

[…]

Bromwich was hired by the board of the Houston Forensic Science Local Government Corp. , with the help of a $75,000 grant from a Houston foundation, to determine if changes his team suggested in 2007 have been implemented.

“There is still room for improvement … we think with the right resources devoted to it, and the right leadership, the lab can improve still more,” Bromwich said.

The TL;DR version of this story is “Much better now. Some things still need to be done. More money is needed to get those things done.” The original report is still here, if you’ve never looked at it or want to refresh your memory. Merging the HPD lab with the new Harris County facility would likely help resolve a number of the remaining issues from the Bromwich report. Mayor Parker has been adamant that she wants the Harris County lab to be fully independent of the District Attorney’s office before she will let that happen. I continue to believe there’s room for a solution to be worked out. I’d love to see it happen before her term in office ends.

Bromwich on the Mayor’s crime lab proposal

Michael Bromwich, the author of the report that laid out all of the problems with HPD’s crime lab, expresses his approval of Mayor Parker’s proposal for an independent crime lab.

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.