More HPD Crime Lab Problems; This Time it’s the Crime Scene Unit

Yes, I said HPD Crime Lab rather than Houston Forensic Science Center. Despite the fancy new name and claimed independence, it’s the same old game. This time the Lab commissioned an audit of its crime scene unit related to officer-involved shootings. The purpose of the audit was to address complaints by the District Attorney’s Office and HPD’s own homicide division. The audit focused solely on the crime scene unit and their performance during the investigation of officer-involved shootings. And the results reveal anything but independence.

Hat tip to the Houston Chronicle for revealing this audit and reporting on its findings.

Set aside for a minute the technical problems with the crime scene unit, the audit highlights a continued lack of autonomy expected of an independent and forensic agency. This “independent” crime scene unit is comprised of 26 employees: a civilian director, a civilian administrative employee, four civilian investigators, and 20 HPD officers and sergeants. 77% of their staff are commissioned officers from the Houston Police Department – the very entity it largely investigates and is supposed to remain independent of. The crime scene investigators even wear HPD uniforms or insignia as they collect evidence and process scenes. They are in fact HPD officers and employees who are subject to transfer out of the crime scene unit and back into the regular ranks. That’s not an independent agency.

Additionally, the crime scene unit personnel are directed largely by the homicide detectives on the scene as well as the officer involved in the shooting. The audit noted that the decision to stop evidence collection was made to appease the homicide detective who determined he “had enough” evidence and an iron clad case. The involved officer, the shooter and apparent target of the independent investigation, is present telling his colleagues “what happened,” it is difficult for crime scene investigators to look past those words and search for additional, or dare I say contradictory, evidence.

On a side note, this is the same bias faced by prosecutors and their investigators – they too are on scene and inside the scene listening to the officer describe what happened. They too will have difficulty looking past those words. Outside of the walk through and witnessing the charting of the officer’s weapon, they sit back and wait on reports from the crime scene unit, homicide, and internal affairs. They conduct no other independent investigation. Instead, they serve as only a somewhat independent review.

Having been on many of these scenes, both as a representative of the District Attorney’s Office and as an involved officer’s legal counsel, the “walk through” by the officer always leads the evidence collection. Sure the scene is secured prior to the walk through and some evidence may already be marked, but everyone is looking for the officer’s rendition to know where else to look and what might be there. To be fair, where a foot chase proceeds a shooting, the scene can be rather large and spread out, necessitating some direction by the officer involved. But for independence, his involvement and direction in the scene must be minimal. Investigators must be free to disregard his words and explanation as they search independently for evidence.

Back to those technical problems: the internal audit found that crime scene unit technicians lack basic forensic skills and training. That’s kind of a big problem given their role in evidence collection. They are not trained specifically in bloodstain patterns and trajectory analysis. This could mean they miss the significance of bloodstains found on the scene. They may guess at or misread an angle of fire as a bullet traveled from the officer’s gun through an object or into a person. They overly rely on two-dimensional photographs to document facts rather than notes, data, and measurements. In fact, they rarely use the sophisticated FARO Focus 3d X330 laser scanners available to capture millions of measurements within the scene and provide a three-dimensional view.

This is not to say that skills and training cannot be improved; it’s simply to point out that they must be strengthened. There is no need for their training to come at the Houston Police Academy. They need not work alongside and with “colleagues” who share the same experiences, badge, and paycheck. Much like the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences hires its own employees, the Lab’s crime scene investigators should not be linked to or tied to the Houston Police Department – at least not if they want to claim independence.


view and download the audit report: Findings of CSU Audit

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