Science Fiction

Why would we even think about giving this guy his own crime lab?

You want to understand what's wrong with Dallas City Hall, to say nothing of the police department? Think about this:

A year ago Dallas police were caught making cases against more than 70 defendants based on fake drug evidence. Now the city manager and the police chief are moving toward a system that would raise new secrecy walls around drug testing and make it harder for anybody to catch the department the same way again.

After the gypsum "fake drugs" scandal hit the fan, Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill set up a new system to prevent it from happening again. Hill wanted to be sure any more fake drug evidence would get caught early on, set off alarms, raise red flags and alert his people and the Dallas Police Department there was another drug evidence problem in the pipeline.

The police department's version of the scandal from the beginning has been that innocent, unsuspecting, naïve narcotics officers were duped by wily confidential informants (CIs) who were planting fake drugs on defendants in order to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in snitch fees. That's their story. We don't make this stuff up. We hope the narcs were provided with counseling to help them recover their trust.

Hill took the department at its word and set up a system to watch for crooked CIs. Under Hill's new setup, lab results from drug testing go immediately to his office by computer. A program matches the results with code-numbered CIs. A pattern of "false positives" (drug samples that turn out not to be drugs) linked to a particular CI sets off an alarm.

Hill's people see it. They pick up the phone to the police department and tell them there's a situation that needs an explanation.

The response of Dallas City Manager Ted Benavides and police Chief Terrell Bolton has been to try to change the system of drug testing in ways that would either cut the district attorney's office out of the picture entirely or at least put it at arm's length. The changes under consideration at City Hall would give all of the evidence-testing work to a private contractor who would work exclusively for the police department.

The city manager and the chief are going to say the only thing they want to do is reduce costs and serve the public better, and I'm going to tell you all about that. But let's keep our eye on the big ball here: In the gypsum fake-drugs scandal, innocent lives were brutalized by the official system. Even though no investigation has yet produced results to explain what really happened, people have a right to worry that the Dallas Police Department may have been in on it.

Until the police department is able to prove that it's clean, the department is dirty in the public's mind. The department has no credibility on this. If it wants credibility, it has to build new credibility from the ground up.

Instead, the city began some months ago seeking bids from private laboratories to do the work that is now done by the Southwestern Institute for Forensic Science (SWIFS). SWIFS is a county entity, separate from law enforcement, with broad ties to the academic community, especially through the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

The private labs whose bids the city has been considering are commercial entities whose sole connection would be to the city and police department, to whom they would look for payment. The original request for bids posted by the city on its Web site required that lab results go exclusively to the police department, effectively putting Hill's system of red flags and alarms out of business.

I have spoken with a variety of people on the local and national scene who are familiar with crime labs and crime lab problems; they all say any move to put a crime lab under the control of a police department is a move in exactly the wrong direction.

I asked attorney Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School in New York City, if he thought the governance of crime labs--their public accountability and transparency--is an important issue. He said no. It's theissue.

"The most important issue is establishing independence for the crime labs, so that they are an independent third force in the criminal justice system, not beholden to the police, the prosecutor or the defense," Scheck said. "Anything that interferes with public officials seeing ultimately all the scientific data from the lab is misguided and wrong."

Defense lawyers in Dallas told me an interesting thing: They always want to put the crime lab on trial, to tell the jury, "You can't believe that lab, they're all hand-in-glove with the cops." But that tactic doesn't work very often with SWIFS, they said, because SWIFS is too good and too open.

Peter Lesser, a defense lawyer well known in the city for his willingness to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with the police department, said the forensic scientists at SWIFS tend to be willing to meet with either side to present and defend their findings.

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