Accreditation of the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences
by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors - Laboratory Accreditation Board
by: Brian Pokluda, Budget and Policy Analyst
January 13, 1999
In 1973, the Federal Bureau of Investigations in conjunction with local crime labs across the country formed the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD). The purpose of the organization was to facilitate the use of best practices in local crime laboratories and to provide a forum for the exchange of information. The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) was formed as an independent entity to provide a formal accreditation for public crime laboratories that meet certain standards. The Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences (Institute) views the accreditation of the County's crime lab as critical to continuing its mission. The purpose of this briefing is to describe the activities required and the costs associated with accreditation and to make a recommendation on the need to pursue accreditation of the Institute by ASCLD/LAB.
In Texas, ASCLD/LAB currently accredited public laboratories similar to the Institute include: the regional Drug Enforcement Agency laboratory, the Texas Commission on Fire Protection arson laboratory, all Texas Department of Public Safety laboratories, and the Bexar County forensic laboratory. Additionally, the Tarrant County crime laboratory has submitted its accreditation application and could be certified as early as this year. The Harris County crime laboratory has already completed the application and inspection phase and expects to receive accreditation in February. In the broader spectrum, 141 laboratories nationwide are accredited and 14 international laboratories have been accredited.
The state of New York currently requires that all public crime labs be accredited. In Texas, accreditation is voluntary. Neither federal nor state legislation has been introduced to make accreditation a requirement for public laboratories. In fact, it could be argued that accreditation is not likely to be mandatory in Texas because it is cost prohibitive for many municipal police departments to achieve the accreditation standards.
In the north Texas area, the Institute does not have a monopoly on crime lab testing. The two laboratories that are possible competitors are the Tarrant County crime laboratory and the Department of Public Safety crime laboratory in Garland. As mentioned above, the Tarrant County lab has applied for accreditation and the Department of Public Safety lab has already gained accreditation. In other areas of the state, most notably in Bexar County, some municipalities have required that their contracted labs be accredited.
Based on a survey of other laboratories, accreditation is a two to three year process. Approximately 75% of the process is the codification of analytical methods and managerial procedures. The remaining changes relate to the physical plant and safety. Simply by going through the process of reviewing testing methods and internal procedures, the Institute is likely to improve its management and maximize its resources.
Operations will be minimally interrupted by the ASCLD/LAB inspection team expected to be on-site for approximately one week shortly after the accreditation application is submitted. Additionally, scientific staff is expected to spend an increased amount of time on administrative and quality control functions after best practices for testing have been codified.
The Institute contends that without accreditation, the testimony of senior staff members in court will be discounted. Logically, test results from a lab accredited by a reputable agency would carry more weight in the minds of jury members than evidence from a non-accredited lab. At least one forensic expert from each section of the Institute has been asked in court whether or not the Institute is an accredited crime lab. Additionally, the chief felony prosecutors of the District Attorney=s Office agree that accreditation will be critical in years to come as they prosecute alleged criminals.
Achieving accreditation involves the following categories of cost, which will be described in subsequent paragraphs:
- purchase and installation of computerized evidence tracking
- fees payable to the accrediting agency
- physical improvements to enhance safety
Evidence Tracking - The largest single cost requirement is the purchase of an evidence tracking system, which is available as an off-the-shelf item from several computer software vendors. Currently, evidence tracking is done manually through a series of logs in individual laboratories. This manual system provides an inconsistent internal chain of custody of evidence. A formal, monitored internal chain of custody is one of the essential requirements of ASCLD/LAB accreditation. Without the implementation of an automated tracking system, the ASCLD/LAB accreditation can not be achieved.
Dr. Elizabeth Todd has received an informal estimate of $102,023 for the tracking software as shown on Attachment A. Additionally, hardware, software, and installation costs have been estimated at $100,000, for a total cost expected to be $202,023. Installation of such a system would be included in the FY2000 or FY2001 work plan of Data Services/SCT. In the event that the Institute changes physical location, this system would be fully portable and could be readily installed in a new building.
Fees Payable to Accrediting Agency - The current cost estimate of the ASCLD/LAB accreditation inspection is between $10,625 and $12,750. The cost is based on the size of the lab and fluctuates from year to year. Additionally, an ongoing $500 per year Amaintenance fee@ is required for all accredited labs. An inspection fee is required every five years to renew the accreditation. Prior to an official accreditation visit from ASCLD/LAB inspectors, the Institute anticipates asking staff from the Department of Public Safety to conduct a review of the lab. The cost of this Apre-inspection@ can be absorbed in the Institute=s training funds.
Physical Improvements - The Court has already approved $200,000 for physical improvements which are desirable with or without accreditation. Additional improvements required for accreditation, but not included in the renovation, are new evidence lockers and locks on existing lockers. This cost is expected to be minimal and can be absorbed by current Institute funding.
Most security requirements of ASCLD/LAB will be met when the Institute=s new security system is installed. The lone exception is the installation of several motion detectors in secured areas with drop ceilings. The one-time cost of the additional motion detectors is anticipated to be less than $5,000.
Minor additional safety improvements must be made prior to ASCLD/LAB accreditation. These include the purchase of first aid kits and training, fire blankets, and additional safety showers. The cost of these minor upgrades is expected to cost less than $2,000.
Staffing - As mentioned in the Operational Impact section above, the majority of the work needed for accreditation involves compiling standard operating procedures and ensuring the quality of the testing procedures. Specifically, ASCLD/LAB guidelines assign certain responsibility to a Quality Manager. Since no Quality Manager currently exists, the Institute has proposed reassigning a chemist from the toxicology section to perform the function. The Quality Manger would report directly to the Director of the Institute. The reassignment of the position is an attempt to accommodate the accreditation process within existing resources. In the event that operational impact of the reassignment on the toxicology section is greater than anticipated, an additional position will be necessary to carry out the quality management function. No additional supervisors or employee development funding is needed to attain accreditation.
In summary, the estimated amount of additional funding needed to achieve ASCLD/LAB accreditation and maintain it for a minimum of five years is as follows:
- Evidence Tracking System $ 202,023
- Inspection - one-time $ 12,750
- Inspection - on-going $ 2,500
- Pre-Inspection $ 0
- Physical Plant Renovations $ *
- Security $ 5,000
- Safety Improvements $ 2,000
- Staffing (by utilizing existing staff) $ 0
- Employee Development $ 0
- Total $ 224,273
* $200,000 has already been budgeted for this purpose and construction is currently underway
The Institute is not asking for a commitment of funds at this time. Rather, a general approval of the concept will allow the development of an RFP to refine the costs of the evidence tracking system which will presumably be included in the FY2000 capital plan. Involvement by Data Services/SCT and the County's MIS manager will occur in the selection of the new system.
Based on the three primary arguments that accreditation: 1)is necessary to maintain a favorable position within the crime lab field, 2) will improve the management and overall effectiveness of the Institute, and 3) is critical to maintaining the integrity of tests and testimony provided by the Institute, pursuit of accreditation is recommended. The accreditation process takes at least two years to implement and no mid-year funding will be necessary to pursue accreditation. All additional expenditures can be included as PIR=s in the FY00 and FY01 budget process.