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How multiple agencies are coming together by pooling their resources, talents, and issues in order to create a comprehensive solution for the future.

While it is inarguable that the practice of forensic science is constantly changing, it may be less obvious but perhaps no less inescapable that the business of forensic science is evolving right along with it. Near the top of the list of recent business models is the effect of partnerships in our field. Call it what you will – affiliation, alliance, partnering, or consortium – the effects of shared resources can add up to improved productivity, a virtually endless stream of staff, and the potential for new avenues of revenue. This article will examine why and where it’s working.

Building the case takes a little conviction
It’s been said that one of the greatest flaws of crime labs is that they do not accommodate change. Even some newer lab designs fail to incorporate features that allow modifications or rearrangement with a minimal amount of disruption and expense. When considering a new facility that will sustain multiple agencies with various agendas, remember the advantages that can be gained by bringing the best of all their worlds together under one roof to create a flexible, efficient operation:

Space – By encouraging the sharing of both common and specialized space, building efficiency is improved.

Time Line – Designing and building one facility is much more cost effective than providing several.

Collaboration – When city, county, and state agencies come together and share lessons learned, the birth of new ideas, methods, and procedures benefits everyone.

Employees – Everyone who works at or with the facility – from students to new forensic employees, examiners, and criminalists to university faculty, administrators to politicians – has the potential to cross over and back, bringing great insight and greater satisfaction to their work, profession, and livelihood.

Money – Financial stability is easier to achieve and maintain as a group than individually. Collaboration can bring increased ability to secure grant dollars, more effective use of agency/government capital dollars, and better spending power of dollars in combined operating budgets.

Resources – Historically, the forensic industry has operated with limited resources. However, when a forensic lab partners with an academic institution, both sides stand to gain. The lab may benefit from an influx of land, space, business office, and new employees. The academic institution may benefit from an expanded staff of experts, the opportunities of real life situations for students, and positive recognition in today’s forensic-focused culture that can attract more students (and even faculty) to the institution.

Scientific Methodology – Two heads are better than one; from sharing and collaborating on scientific ideas in order to improve current practices, to investigating and researching new ways of analyzing evidence.

Equipment Technology – The sharing of specialized and expensive equipment, such as Scanning Electron Microscopes (a useful tool in trace analysis), greatly improves the cost per use ratio.

Reduced Outsourcing to Corporate Providers – Spending operating dollars or charging high fees does little to strengthen the lab’s workforce from within, but the right group of partners can enrich your operation at all levels.

Crime crosses jurisdictional boundaries - why shouldn’t forensic laboratories?
A forensic agency may be “out on its own” to investigate, analyze, document, and testify for each case; increasingly, it’s becoming a more difficult task to bear. Having a partner may lessen these burdens by the gain of available staff and technology.

As the dynamics of the industry continue to evolve, the time has come for a merger of talents and resources that allow the new forensic facility to put its best foot forward to convict criminals, educate future staff, and exonerate the innocent.

Today, there are a wide range of forensic agencies (city, county, state, and federal) that are coming together to not only solve crimes, but stay ahead of crime. In instances where agencies are strapped for cash, they have found that building a relationship with a developer can be a useful partnership for funding and constructing a new facility.

These new forensic models provide new lines of service, more research opportunities, and the development of new technology, thanks in part to the formation of unique partnerships. Rubbing shoulders can foster the transfer of methods, materials, and mindsets, such as the standardization of QA/QC policies, analytical testing, and the ISO 17025 process. It can also bring access to specialized equipment (ICP-MS, SEM, XRF) and reference libraries (paint, soil, weapons) for examiners and criminalists, thereby reducing the time it takes to develop your staff as technical leaders.

Laying the groundwork to build a new public perception
Sometimes, strategic partnerships just make sense. Take for example the case in Los Angeles. Neither the Los Angeles Police Department nor the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department crime labs could muster enough support to fund new laboratory facilities that each sorely needed. However, when the city and county joined forces and presented an innovative program to build a multiple-use Los Angeles Regional Crime Lab (LARCL) for the two agencies, as well as a Master of Science Degree in Criminalistics on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles, people began to listen. Los Angeles County Sheriff, Lee Baca, was able to present the concept to state officials who funded the project through a general obligation bond measure for $96 million. It was through the hard work of individuals such as Greg Matheson of the LAPD and Barry Fisher of the LASD who worked together for months to develop an understanding of an operating agreement for a new joint facility.

In addition, Cal State LA created the California Forensic Science Institute, which will also be housed in the 21,000 sq. ft. LARCL facility. The non-profit organization will support forensic science in academic, research, in-service training, and public education through grants and fund-raising activities. It hopes to bridge the gap between novel scientific technology and its application in the crime lab. This unique collaboration, which also includes the State Department of Justice Bureau of Forensic Services’ California Criminalistics Institute, has captured the imagination of local political leaders, who recognize this project is a prototype of how state and local agencies can work together creatively to leverage resources and expertise that will benefit everyone.

Louisiana State University’s School of Medicine recently began the process of sponsoring a Regional Forensic Crime Laboratory to be located in New Orleans. This new facility will offer numerous advantages to the City of New Orleans, and is of great interest to potential stakeholders such as the FBI, military and government officials, city law enforcement, and the federal government. The Regional Forensic Crime Lab will replace the current inadequate city morgue, offering forensic science and medicine, research capabilities, education and training, toxicology, occupational health, and pathology.

The University of Rhode Island Forensic Science Partnership has also reached out to enhance education and research in the field of forensic science. The Partnership is a consortium of URI faculty with staff of the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory, including commercial and governmental agencies. Research activities have been identified in the fields of evidence recovery, trace analysis, forensic biology, and drug & alcohol analysis. Researchers submit applications to the partnership for funding of new interests in forensic projects. The University also offers an interdisciplinary forensic science minor program focusing on theory and practice.

The federal government helped spearhead a partnership in 2000 when the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced the opening of a Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory (RCFL) in San Diego, California. As part of its ongoing effort to combat the escalation of computer-related crimes, this multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional entity became responsible for acquiring, archiving, and analyzing digital evidence in support of criminal investigations. It served as the prototype for new regional laboratories across the country.

The initial contingent of RCFL personnel consisted of agency members from: California Highway Patrol, Chula Vista Police Department, Defense Criminal Investigative Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, El Cajon Police Department, Escondido Police Department, FBI, La Mesa Police Department, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, San Diego County Sheriff's Office, San Diego District Attorney's Office, San Diego Police Department, and U.S. Customs Service.

At the time, FBI Director Louis Freeh said, "The role of the computer forensics examiner will become increasingly more important as criminals continue to exploit emerging computer technology. As we have found on the national level, joining forces with other federal, state, and local agencies produces higher levels of service in the full range of cases where computers are either used to facilitate crimes or the computer itself is the target of a criminal act." The RCFL started with 17 computer forensic examiners from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies serving all law enforcement requests within San Diego and Imperial counties. The laboratory has three main functions: imaging, analysis, and research and development. Examiners rotate between these assignments, allowing each of them to develop the skills necessary for the job.

Personnel who train at the RCFL facility return to their home agencies better positioned to perform examinations and testify in court. They gain a wealth of experience obtained from a variety of cases, greater understanding of available resources, tools, and methodologies in computer forensics, and more professional contacts in the regional and national computer forensics network.

Summary
It is difficult for a small forensic lab to be all things to all people at all times. These labs can experience delays in examining evidence or pay high fees to have an outside company analyze it. Combining agency resources and pulling together the best talent allows for a richer depth of investigation resulting in more convictions.

Forensic facilities should not have to limit their business model to a single solution, but rather keep their options open. Overlapping different solutions that play to their strengths will lower risk and strengthen growth.

Just as science methodology transitions, so must the business of forensic science; from the use of radioisotopes in DNA to today’s PCR, so too is the distance between a single agency trying to survive on its own to those joining forces with academia and other agencies. The benefits of partnering will be increased throughput, more available expertise, and additional revenue streams.

Ken Mohr is a Principal and Sr. Forensic Laboratory Planner with HERA, Inc. His 17 years of experience with advanced laboratories includes nearly 3 million square feet of forensic facilities. HarleyEllis and HERA together form a strategic alliance called Crime Lab Design, which provides full A/E services for forensic and medical examiner facilities. Ken can be reached at kmohr@herainc.com

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