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The Nassau Crime Lab: Can the Public Ever Trust Police-Run Crime Labs – or the System – Again?

Yesterday’s Newsday cover story revealed a disturbing twist to the already-disturbing situation with the police-run Nassau County Crime Lab.  Documentation shows us that problems at the crime lab date back to 2003 – including two letters written in 2006 from then-state Division of Criminal Justice Services Commissioner to then-Nassau Police Commissioner — addressing “fifteen findings” of noncompliance at the lab” and making it clear that “the state’s confidence in the lab was waning.”   In light of this new information about just how long the problems at the lab were going on –and who knew about them– we’re left to wonder how the lab could have continued on with “business as usual” for seven years after becoming aware of their inefficiencies.  And, more importantly, why they continued to put so many people’s lives, and futures, on the line with faulty evidence-handling.

Most likely, we can suspect that the long-term issues related to the crime lab are related to funding issues.  It’s quite possible that the police department did not want to invest resources in the lab, feeling that they could take shortcuts there because no one would likely discover the problems.  The irony of the situation is that not only were the problems discovered, but their inattentiveness and possible “cutting corners” will actually   cost so much more economically at this point.  It also cost them the reputation of the lab, the credibility of the system … and, unfortunately, the trust and confidence of the people who were always taught to believe in the good intentions and work of our law enforcement representatives.

These latest revelations show why police-run crime labs must be a thing of the past.  The fact that documented issues with the Nassau County Crime Lab go back to 2003 and were continuously ignored demonstrates that the police are more interested in justifying their work than actually verifying it.   The public wants to believe in the good intentions and work of our law enforcement representatives —  but this latest development in the crime lab situation demonstrates the inappropriateness of blindly believing that those with good intentions should not be questioned.

The fact that the Commissioner of Police could be advised on multiple occasions of issues within a specific branch of his department – and literally do nothing – is beyond belief.  It reminds me of the movie “A Few Good Men” in which Jack Nicholson said “until you stand a post, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to” in response to the question “I want the truth.”  I’m still not sure we have the truth, but I know we are entitled to it … and I know that the public’s confidence cannot be restored until we have it.

At this point, we still don’t know how things will play out in terms of re-testing results or how far back we should go in terms of retesting evidence with this widened timeframe of the mishandling of evidence.  We don’t know how many cases may have been affected, how many appeals there will end up being … or how many convictions may actually be overturned.  But we do know that there’s a lot of work left to do – and a lot of trust that needs to be rebuilt as we work on ways to not only fix the problems resulting from the crime lab, but hopefully fix the system, as well.

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