Science Fiction

When Bolton gets his own crime lab: "Nah, this stuff isn't Sheetrock. Gimme that test tube." Shake-shake. "It's not Sheetrock." Shake-shake-shake.
Dorit Rabinovitch

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 the issue.

"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.

"SWIFS is very open," Lesser said. "I don't consider SWIFS really to be an arm of the D.A.'s office. I've gone over there in big cases, where I really wanted more information behind the autopsy, more data, and the doctors there will talk to you. That's pretty good. I would be very reluctant to see the police department have a private contract, because my guess is those people would not talk to defense lawyers."

Ronald Goranson, one of the city's most respected defense attorneys, agreed with Scheck that the most important issue with crime labs everywhere, not just here, is making sure they are insulated from pressure. "Transparency and being open to the public: That's what the problem with almost all the laboratories across the country has been," Goranson said.

District Attorney Hill argues that SWIFS is set up the right way. "They are accountable to the public, the taxpayers, the county commissioners, the medical school, and that's the type of openness and accountability that I think the public wants to see, particularly in light of what's happened in the past.

"I think it's setting a bad precedent to have a for-profit lab chosen by the police department basically to be the one that is going to analyze the drugs...We're doing everything we can to regain the public's confidence in the system. I think the more checks and balances we have, the better we're going to be able to do that.

"I think it's imperative for both the police department and the district attorney's office to be together on the results of these tests immediately when they are formed."

Hill did tell me he had heard informally that the city had backed off its requirement that other agencies be shut out of the test results until the police department had seen them first. I spoke with Assistant City Manager Charles Daniels, who confirmed that the city was dropping that requirement verbally, even though the requirement remains a part of the formal bid structure.

But here's the deal: If a private contractor works exclusively for the police department, we have to assume the police department will become a major and very important paycheck for that contractor. And we have to assume the contractor will be worried about losing its paycheck if it allows test results to get into public hands in a way that severely embarrasses the police department. That's the way of the world.

A police department that helps send people to prison for possession of gypsum needs to be severely embarrassed. That needs to get out. That's why you structure it so that the police department lacks the ability to pressure the lab. Having the police department promise not to pressure the lab counts for diddly-squat. The safe system is one in which the police department cannot pressure the lab even if it very badly wants to.

A spokeswoman for Chief Bolton told me that putting the lab work out for bids was not the chief's idea but came from the city manager. City Manager Ted Benavides has said in letters to Hill that the city's only interest in seeking bids from private labs is to see if it can hold down costs. Chief Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm told me that this bid process, which will be completed and presented to the council at some point in the next month, is only an aspect of the city's ongoing effort to see which city functions can be privatized in order to save money.

The cost-saving argument is absolute hooey. SWIFS provided the city with data to show that its fees are way lower than what even the cheapest for-profit lab would charge. Guess why. Because SWIFS is already subsidized by us, the taxpayers, and because it operates on a "cost-recovery" (no profit) basis. SWIFS didn't offer a formal bid, because it said the request for bids was structured only for for-profit labs. For example, the requirements included fines to be paid by the lab if it's an hour late with test results. How can SWIFS pay fines if it isn't even making a profit? So SWIFS provided data to the city but did not formally bid.

And anyway, my two-bit argument to the city manager and the police chief would be this: Your most important task right now is not to save money on the lab tests. It's not to restructure things in order to protect the two of you from political embarrassment in the future.  

You have three big tasks:

1) Reassure us that you're not going to come sneaking around our houses and plant big old fat bags of chalk dust in our cars and then get Crazy Ace Cut-Rate Crime Labs to say it's cocaine. (It's extremely important to us that you not do that.)

2) Do something about Dallas being the most crime-ridden city in the country, according to the FBI.

3) Explain to us why we have to have these conversations.

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