The Forensic Science Identity Crisis
Forensic science is suffering an identity crisis. At least that’s what many in the criminal justice world believe. Is it an applied science, or is it a separate basic science? Where should it fall in the world of academia? Who should be carrying out the research? The questions are perplexing, and clear answers seem to be out of reach.
“Forensic science doesn’t really have an identity in the way that other scientific disciplines do,” explains forensic consultant Michael Knox. “Academically and clinically forensic science follows many different courses depending on who and where it is practiced.”
Knox’s concern is that forensic science has come under attack, and the lack of structure and organization may lead to substantial damage to its admissibility in the courtroom if practitioners do not make a concerted effort to reorganize and provide structure to the discipline. “Forensic scientists and practitioners need to come to a better consensus on issues such as academic credentials and practice criteria,” Knox explains. “We’re just not as organized as other scientific disciplines.”
Knox says that his background in engineering gives him a perspective that other forensic scientists often miss. “When you go to engineering school, your entire upper-division curriculum is about solving real-world problems,” Knox explains. “You don’t take multiple choice exams. You solve problems—those dreaded word problems. But when you finish that education, you have learned to solve all sorts of problems and built a skill set that makes you better than you were when you started.”
Knox believes that forensic scientists could learn from engineers. “Forensic scientists often report that the results of a test were inconclusive,” says Knox. “Engineers can’t do that. If you hire an engineer to build a bridge and ask him if it can be done, he can’t say: ‘That’s inconclusive.’ You want to know if you can build the bridge or not, so the engineer has to answer that question one way or the other.”
According to Knox, one of the main reasons why forensic science is suffering such an identity crisis is that the field is becoming far too specialized resulting in too many competing interests. “Forensic science has become so specialized in recent years that not only are tests on evidence carried out by various different analysts,” Knox explains, “in many crime labs one toxicologist won’t even handle both blood and drug testing for a single blood sample. One will determine the blood alcohol level and then another will look for drugs in the sample.”
Knox argues that this over-specialization creates an atmosphere in which no single person or entity is ultimately responsible for what happens in that investigation. “The forensic analysts don’t have a clue how their analysis fits within the overall context of the investigation,” says Knox, “so that decision is left to investigators and attorneys who may have very little technical and scientific understanding of what the forensic analysis means to their case.” Knox explains that gunshot residue analysis is often a good example of this problem. While the scientists typically understand that the presence or lack of gunshot residue on a person’s hands may say little about whether or not that person fired a gun, within the context of an investigation, the evidence often gets interpreted in that manner.
According to Knox, this level of specialization has not always been the case. Knox explains that Paul Kirk, considered by many to be the father of modern criminalistics, studied, taught, and wrote about all areas of criminalistics and was not a specialized scientist. “Kirk could deal with all types of evidence,” says Knox. “Trace evidence, firearms, blood, toxicology—all of it.”
Knox believes that the solution to the problem starts with education. “Nobody in academia has figured out what to do with forensic science education,” Knox explains. “Colleges and universities don’t know where to place the programs. Why would you put a forensic science program within a chemistry department? What does a chemistry professor know about criminal investigations, courtroom procedures, and criminal law?” Knox argues that forensic science needs to be taught as a separate discipline using professors with real experience in the field teaching not just the science, but the history, philosophy, ethics, and administration of justice that are all part of the clinical practice.
Attacks on forensic science have increased in the post-O.J. Simpson, post-Daubert, post-NAS world. Forensic science challenges and concerns over its validity have not been limited to the United States. Forensic conferences around the world have approached the issue, and crime labs outside the U.S. have come under scrutiny for alleged mishandling of evidence. Issues of crime laboratory control, funding, and privatization have also plagued the forensic science community and made it more difficult for labs to provide services. The recent closure of the UK’s Forensic Science Service shows just how critical the problem has become. That closure, forced by Parliament, was made ostensibly for economic reasons. The lab, responsible for sixty percent of forensic services to police in England and Wales, was reportedly losing £2 million per month. Some are concerned that loss of the lab will mean that forensic analyses will be carried out by smaller, non-accredited laboratories. Accreditation, Knox believes, is one of the key factors in moving forensic science forward. “Accreditation, both in laboratories and in academia, is critical to bringing greater consistency and continuity to the way forensic science is practiced throughout the country,” Knox explains. “Engineering schools are required to be ABET accredited for a degree to have any worth. But there’s no accrediting body for forensic science education. That needs to change.”
“Forensic science needs an identity,” Knox says. “We’re not going to see that happen until we define the science, place it where it belongs academically, and develop stronger accreditation and regulation standards. Any we have to do much, much more research.”
Michael Knox is a forensic consultant and is the owner of Knox & Associates, LLC , a Jacksonville, Florida-based forensic consulting company that specializes in firearms, ballistics, and crime scene reconstruction. He was a police-officer/detective with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for over 15 years having worked in patrol, DUI enforcement, crime scene investigations, and traffic homicide investigations. He was the training coordinator for the agency’s crime scene unit for several years and has provided crime scene training in Peru, the United Arab Emirates, the Republic of Georgia, and around the United States. He has testified as an expert witness in crime scene reconstruction in state and federal courts in Florida, Alabama, Texas, and Illinois. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of North Florida and Master of Science degree in forensic science from the University of Florida. He also holds current certification as a crime scene reconstructionist through the International Association for Identification and accreditation as a traffic accident reconstructionist through the Accreditation Commission for Traffic Accident Reconstruction.