Feature

In crime labs, there is little room for error. A mistake could place an innocent person behind bars, allow a serial criminal to operate unchecked or even cost lives.

However, the forensic scientists who work in public crime labs are often overburdened and unsupported, say experts such as Wendy S. Becker, PhD, an industrial/organizational psychologist who teaches management at the University at Albany, which is part of the State University of New York system. And in the rush to embrace technology-which has taken criminal investigations from fingerprint cards to entire databases of DNA-crime labs often forget the people needed to make the technology work, says Becker. To alleviate such problems, Becker uses her organizational expertise to help labs identify and address factors such as high turnover, lack of resources and overwork that affect staff performance. She is currently advising several state labs and has served on the accreditation committee for the New York City crime lab.

Crime and the organizational psychologist

Becker first became aware of crime labs' organizational problems about five years ago when W. Mark Dale-the head of the New York State crime lab at that time-took her course in human-resource management. Dale turned in a paper that reviewed employee problems in crime labs, such as turnover, problems retaining employees and large backlogs of DNA to be entered into databases. Becker encouraged him to publish and he asked for her help. Soon she was immersing herself in the culture of the crime lab. Dale and Becker went on to co-author several papers on human resource management and staffing in the crime lab. The papers focused on areas like turnover, managing workload, and recruiting and retaining employees.

"The problems with a forensic science lab are all of the typical problems that occur when you put technology on a pedestal," notes Becker.

For instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigations has a national criminal database of DNA-the National DNA Index System. State and local authorities are connected to this database by the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which allows them to exchange and compare DNA with any jurisdiction in the network.

But this means forensic scientists have to enter the DNA-a Herculean task that involves taking not only current crime scene and offender DNA, but DNA that was collected before this technology existed. And while technology can produce the profile, usually a human being still needs to analyze it, points out Joanne Sgueglia, a forensic scientist and technical manager of forensic biology at the Massachusetts State Police crime lab.

Massachusetts has legislation allowing DNA profiling of all convicted offenders, notes Sgueglia. The state crime lab often sends these samples to outside labs, but the profiles generated must still be reviewed by the state's forensic scientists, she says.

According to a census taken by the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2002, the 351 publicly funded labs ended the year with a total of approximately 49,000 backlogged requests for DNA analysis. Another DOJ study found that in the 50 largest crime labs in the country, for every single DNA analysis performed, two requests were outstanding. And DNA is not all that crime labs process-they also handle fingerprints, test firearms, and analyze trace evidence and any other evidence gathered at the crime scene. Thisexponential increase in evidence that technology has spurred is overwhelming labs, says Dale. Technicians constantly juggle priorities, and current cases take precedence over entering old samples to build the database.

Another problem that crime lab technicians often face is determining which task is most pressing. Some cold cases may become urgent because the statute of limitations is running out, says Dale. Although the Massachusetts lab has a case management unit to direct the work load, in many labs, technicians must do the juggling themselves, says Sgueglia.

Such inefficiencies frustrate employees, says Dale. One of Dale's analysts once noted, "It's like we have the cure for cancer and we can only cure 10 people a month."

The huge amount of work that many labs deal with is just one of the reasons why most facilities have high employee turnover rates, notes Becker. In a 2003 Web-based survey of 55 local, state and federal crime labs, Becker and Dale found that 34 percent said that turnover was a problem for their organization, and 48 percent said they were losing employees to the private sector.

People think forensics work is sexy, but in reality, forensics scientists need a lot of technical training and work for low pay with little hope of advancement, says Becker. Some fledgling forensic scientists come to public labs to get their training-which can take anywhere from six to 18 months-and then leave for more lucrative positions in private labs, explain Becker and Sgueglia.

Human solutions

Becker and her colleagues are helping crime labs address some of these problems, and do so with a limited budget. By applying what psychology knows about hiring and workplace design, labs can make the most of available resources, Becker says.

For instance, she recommended a number of measures to combat turnover and increase recruitment at the New York State lab. One innovation involved internships and "shadow" positions for college and high school students. By recruiting students early in their careers, the lab is widening the pool of applicants, and those that are hired are "self-selected," and more likely to stay, says Becker, who notes that all 17 interns hired from the initial programs were still with the lab after several years. Another method was to promote high-performing lab technicians to forensic science positions more quickly.

One way that employees can progress more quickly is through accelerated intensive training. Dale is currently teaching in the forensics department at the State University of New York at Albany, where he runs a 16-week program he has dubbed "DNA academy." Labs from around the country can send employees to gain DNA proficiency-a process that usually takes 18 months when new technicians learn as they go under a mentor system.

Labs can also give employees other reasons to stay. When salaries can't be increased, Becker has suggested that lab managers offer other incentives. For example, management can play to scientists' curiosity by letting them attend scientific conferences and participate in professional organizations. Other labs have paid for employees to attend conferences and train in related areas, says Becker.

Dale and Becker are also attempting to improve morale-and efficiency-in the lab by encouraging teamwork.

"What is really needed is high-performance self-directed teams," Dale says.

There are new machines that can process very quickly-in some cases 100 times faster than older machines. These machines, coupled with smart, efficient teams that Dale likens to "Indy pit crews"-could help labs handle their high workloads, he says-reducing the backlog and making case loads more manageable.

Work quality is linked to job satisfaction in any profession, notes Becker. By realizing that technology only works as well as the people who run it, crime labs can reduce the potential for errors.