Organization of Laboratories


The article discusses the way that laboratories are organized within a jurisdiction and the ways that an individual laboratory is organized. Some theoretical principles are described and compared with actual practices.
There is no common organizational system for forensic science laboratories. With very few exceptions, all are government departments or public sector agencies. Most are administratively within police departments; of those some are staffed by sworn personnel, some by civilians and some by a mixture. Others are found within civilian departments, but usually within some form of legal service agency. Some are large and can be described as ‘full service,’ whereas others offer a limited service on a local basis.
The spread of accreditation as a means of setting operational standards has brought little organizational uniformity, as programs are tailored to assure quality within each of the varied administrations and not to impose a standard structure.

General Issues Accreditation standards

ISO requirements Forensic science laboratories are testing laboratories. Parts of their organization and management are covered by standards such as ISO Guide 25. Table 1 describes the main organizational requirements.
Forensic specific requirements There is an international accreditation program specific to forensic science laboratories. It is that of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB). Table 2 lists the organizational requirements of the program.

Organization Within a Jurisdiction

Administrative organization

The parent organization The accreditation standards make no administrative demands of a forensic laboratory, other than that it defines reporting relationships and takes steps to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest. The parent organizations encountered are set out in Table 3.
More than 200 (or about two-thirds) of the members of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors have addresses that identify the host agency for the laboratory as being in a police department. Over 80 have addresses that identify them as being hosted in another government agency. Less than 20 are private or found in universities.

Table 1 Organizational requirements of testing laboratories in ISO Guide 25

The laboratory shall be organized and shall operate in such a way that it meets all the applicable requirements of the Guide.
If the laboratory is part of an organization performing activities other than testing . . . the responsibilities of all staff shall be defined in order to identify potential conflicts of interest.
Define, with the aid of organizational charts, the organization and management structure ofthe laboratory, its place in any parent organization, and the relations between management, technical operations, support services and the quality management system.
Specify the responsibility, authority and interrelationships of all personnel who manage, perform or verify work affecting the quality of the tests.
Appoint deputies for key personnel

Table 2 Organizational requirements from ASCLD/LAB

Organizational structure groups and personnel work in a manner to allow for efficiency taking account of the various disciplines (D)
Subordinates are accountable to one supervisor per function (l) There are clear communication channels (D) There is a library (l)
There are secure long- and short-term storage areas (E)
There is adequate work space for personnel (l) and equipment (D)
Design permits efficient evidence flow (l)
Access is controllable and limited (E)
Exterior exit points have adequate security control (E)
Internal areas have a lock system
That group of over 200 contains a great variety of facilities. It ranges from the huge FBI Laboratory employing over 500 people and active in all areas, and in R & D; through the Illinois State Police system, with eight sites including a large urban facility employing about 200 staff, and a training center; to several throughout the US which employ just a few people to provide a drug and firearms service to a local police agency.

Organizational issues related to host agency location

It has been argued that there is a danger intrinsic to the location of forensic science laboratories within a police department. Namely, that they unconsciously become agents of the prosecution and lose their scientific objectivity. There is no convincing proof of this, either way. Some of the finest operational and research facilities are housed as part of a police department. The overwhelming bulk of work in forensic science is carried out on the instructions of investigators or prosecutors, irrespective of the administrative location of the service laboratory. The many private laboratories conducting DNA testing seem quite capable of working equally well, whether acting on the instructions of prosecutors, or defense.

Table 3 Parent organizations for forensic science laboratories

Police departments
Legal service agencies such as district attorney Universities
Other government departments Private commercial companies
This is a specific issue identified in ISO accreditation standards - potential conflicts of interest. The answer is that it is not the nature of the host agency, but the nature of the responsibility and accountability of the laboratory staff and management which counts. If it is an issue, it is not a very serious one in practice as hardly any forensic science laboratories have been set up specifically to deal with the matter of operational independence. An example is the Swedish National Laboratory of Forensic Science in Linkoping. It is housed in a University and its budget and operations are controlled by an independent board. Another example is the State Forensic Science Centre in Adelaide, Australia, which was established by legislation which required it to be free from control by police or other legal service agency.
The main problem with forensic science laboratories and location within a police agency is that of resources. Although some of the finest and best-resourced laboratories in the world are found within police agencies (the former Metropolitan Police Laboratory in London, UK; the FBI Laboratory in Washington DC; and the Forensic Science Center at Chicago, for example), there are very many examples where the police host has not been able to understand the level of resources needed to establish, maintain and develop a quality forensic science laboratory. In general, the commitment is seen by the level of reporting relationship enjoyed by the laboratory director. Agencies which take their laboratories seriously have the director reporting to someone very senior in the hierarchy.
Financial organization of forensic science laboratories One of the largest forensic science organizations in the world, the Home Office Forensic Science Service (FSS) in England, is currently organized as a government agency. This brings with it certain financial freedoms and disciplines, as it requires the FSS to operate as a business and recover its costs through the sale of services to customers.
This mode of operation was established for some services in Australia and New Zealand several years before its adoption by the FSS. It is a strange amalgamation of what most would regard as a core public service (administration of justice) being delivered by a public entity operating to (some) private sector business standards, and has not been adopted in the US or other countries.
The rationale behind the Australian and New Zealand initiatives was that governments wished to identify the true costs of delivering public services. They thus required indirect costs such as capital depreciation, accommodation rental, leave and other staff benefits, and insurances to be quantified and included in the cost of providing the service.
The next step was to make the customer agencies responsible for meeting the costs of the service. The rationale here was that they would purchase only what they needed and could afford. The final step was to define a series of policy-purchaser-provider relationships, in which the government set policy and funded purchasers who sought the best value from available providers.
In some cases, where providers were government agencies, they were required to provide a return on capital to the government equivalent to the shareholder’s return on the investment of a similar private industry. The agency was permitted to retain profit to reinvest in the business.
Some of the advantages and disadvantages of commercially operating forensic science services are set out in Table 4.
In theory, commercialization of services should also introduce competition. Competition in turn should mean that providers have to focus on providing only timely, necessary services which meet the standards of the customer. However, one of the customer’s standards will be to get the best return for the limited budget available. The consequences of quality failure in forensic science are too dramatic for it to operate in a price-driven market. Also one of the expressed concerns about existing service structures (see above) is that forensic services provided from police agencies may suffer from unconscious bias due to their close affiliation with the prosecution. A commercial service with a strong customer service ethic will have the same problem. Finally, discontinuing laboratory investigations which are not cost effective raises concerns at the long-term loss of analytical and interpretative skills in areas such as hair examination, and therefore possibly significant evidence not being available.
Probably the two main difficulties with public sector commercial services are that those who are devoting resources to quality assurance and who are honest with their costing will suffer as they are undercut by providers – especially other public sector providers – who either bid at marginal rates which do not reflect the true operational costs, or cut corners in quality to lower costs. The second difficulty is that police investigators and the laboratory do not have the normal purchaser-provider relationship that applies to the purchase of goods or services. Agencies such as prosecutor, defense and judiciary all have a major stake in the services and can influence service delivery without having to carry any fiscal responsibility. As an example, one of the earliest commercial services was established and developed in South Australia in the period 1984-87, and still in operation there. In that time the single greatest influence on the service was the decision by the Chief Justice to impose a 6-week maximum time period from charge to first hearing at which time evidence had to be ready for scrutiny by the defense. The provider laboratory and purchaser police department were left to deal with the mandate from within existing resources.

Organization Within a Laboratory

Administrative Organization

Testing areas covered The ASCLD/LAB program defines eight subject areas or disciplines: Controlled substances, toxicology, trace evidence, serology, DNA, questioned documents (QD) latent prints and firearms and toolmarks. These can be taken as defining the scope of a normal full service crime laboratory. The internal organization of a laboratory will need to allow for the handling of the work load within each discipline and the interaction between them.

Table 4 Commercial operation of forensic science laboratories

Feature Advantage or disadvantage
Identifies true costs Should give basis for rational funding decisions but can distort comparisons unless applied
in the same way to all laboratories.
Encourages savings Better value may result in lower quality service as corners are cut. Avoids ‘empire building’.
Customer responsiveness Who is the customer (police,prosecutor, court)? Impact on impartiality by doing whatever
the purchaser pays for.
Capital equipment depreciation Allows better financial planning.
True service culture Same service available to all participants in the justice system. Service provided is tailored
to customer needs in areas such as timeliness. (‘Timelynecessary service’)

Table 5 shows the disciplines and some of the more common interactions each has with one or more of the other fields. Generally, QD and firearms and toolmarks are stand alone (other than their interaction with latent prints), although gun shot residue examination may be performed in trace chemistry in some organizations, and weapons may require biological testing.
Evidence recovery Table 5 also shows the interactions between the disciplines. Effective case work management starts with effective processing of evidence recovery. Controlled substances, QD, firearms and toolmarks, latent prints and toxicology are usually self-contained in regard to evidence recovery. Cases are readily identifiable and there is no special procedure to recover evidence.
In contrast, trace, serology and DNA depend on the efficient processing of cases to recover the evidential material before the testing even starts. The physical plant and personnel organization must allow for recovery that is fast, complete and free from contamination.
Evidence management The ASCLD/LAB program places a premium on evidence integrity. The laboratory must provide secure long- and short-term storage capacities. Evidence in long-term storage must be under proper seal and evidence in short-term storage must be protected from loss, contamination and deleterious change. The main organizational aspects of meeting these standards are evidence retention and control of access to unsealed evidence.
Evidence retention is a major problem for many laboratories. There is a common tendency for law enforcement agencies to use the laboratory as a repository for evidence. Examination of the evidence store of almost any laboratory will reveal cases more then 3 years old. Many of these will have been disposed of by the court or will no longer be the subject of an active investigation. For example, the author has audited a laboratory with about 30 analysts which had an evidence store of more than 1000 ft2 (90 m2) to deal with the problem of retention of old cases. In contrast, a laboratory with more than 100 analysts, but a strong policy on case acceptance and evidence return, had a property room of under 600 ft2 (55 m2).
Examples of practices to deal with the problem include a laboratory service which delivered evidence from completed cases back to the originating police offices on a weekly basis, a routine destruction of evidence over a year old unless an active instruction is received from a senior police officer or prosecutor, and a routine screening of information on the jurisdiction’s Justice Information System to identify cases disposed of.
Whatever procedures are put in place, the internal organization of the laboratory has to recognize evidence control and management as a major area of responsibility.

Table 5 The disciplines encountered in a full service crime laboratory and their interactions with each other.

Discipline Interacts with Resulting in
Controlled substances Toxicology Trace Contamination; intelligence information to target toxicology test
Examination of packaging materials
DNA Latent prints Sample preservation (effect of refrigeration which preserves biologicals but degrades latents)
Serology DNA
Body fluid identification (potential problem where DNA
analysis is separate from biological evidence screening). Evidence recovery and interpretation
Latent prints Trace chemistry and serology
Latent development
Latent preservation – need to protect from contamination
Trace (associative evidence) All Evidence recovery and contamination
Trace,DNA and serology All Evidence interpretation (serology and DNA are the only ones giving personal information) and analysis time (these tend to have the longest run round times)

Internal access control The most effective way to meet the requirement for preservation of unsealed evidence in cases being worked is through control of access. The simplest way to achieve this is for each analyst to have a personal secure locker which they and only they can access. A back-up key can be retained under seal for emergency access.
Generalist or specialist Organization according to the accreditation disciplines implies that staff are specialists in each area. Not all laboratories accept this organizational assumption. Smaller laboratories require multiskilled staff to cover the range of tests they wish to offer. In other instances, such as in California, laboratories choose to develop multi-skilled generalists. The argument is that it not only offers management flexibility, but the broad awareness that comes with it insures a better appreciation of evidential value.
The argument in favor of specialization is that it is not possible to gain and maintain a sufficient knowledge and practical skill base to meet the needs of operations today. Issues such as proficiency testing, the growth of specialist instrumentation, and increasing peer scientific awareness that DNA brings forth all favor specialist rather than generalist practitioners.

Centralization of services

Some laboratories serve jurisdictions which are of sufficient size in population or geographical area to be deemed to require more than one laboratory. The laboratories may all be full service (or at least offer a range of disciplines), or may be small regionals offering a limited service to the local community. There is no single answer to the optimum organization in this regard but some of the factors to be considered are shown in Table 6.


A visit to 10 randomly chosen forensic science laboratories would produce 10 different ways of organizing a laboratory. About a third would be well-organized, efficient and effective facilities; about a third would be performing well but with opportunities for improvement; and the remaining one-third would be producing a service which could clearly benefit from some attention.
Consideration of the factors which can influence the way in which a laboratory is organized and set out in the tables, shows the following key areas:
• Organization to comply with external standards.
• Organization to deal with effective case and evidence processing.
• Organization to deal with the external factors influencing the laboratory such as its administrative location and the nature of the population base it serves.

External standards

Tables 1 and 2 set out some of the pertinent requirements of the ISO Guide 25 and ASCLD/LAB standards for accreditation of a laboratory. These require the organization to deal with:

Table 6 Factors in organization of laboratories within a system

Factor Response
Population Regional laboratories providing extensive service to share workload and
meet needs of defined population centers.
Geographical area Specialist regional laboratories to service local courts in areas such as
blood alcohol,drugs,firearms,and latent prints. Differing needs of
urban and rural communities.
Low demand but essential cases with major capital Single specialist center such as ICP-MS,or outsource testing
Technically demanding test areas where Single specialist center such as STR data basing,or outsourcing
establishment costs are high
Areas requiring rapid turn round May be easier to establish local service than to provide special courier
service for collection and reporting

• Accountability, authority and responsibility;
• Freedom from conflicts of interest.
• Organizational and lay-out structured to allow for efficiency taking account of the various disciplines (see also Table 5).
• Evidence integrity.
• The requirement for adequate work space for personnel and equipment.
• Physical security.
One of the consequences of the standards - particularly the ISO Guide 25 -is that lack of resources is not an acceptable reason for poor work. If the resources are not sufficient to permit adequate quality of work in any area, then the testing must not be performed in that area. There are many different ways to resource laboratories and no evidence that any one is superior to the others (see Table 4, for example).

Effective and efficient case processing

Effective case processing means meeting the customer’s service standards. The customer assumes a zero defect service in regard to correct results from appropriate tests. After that the customer requires a timely service. The ‘right’ answer on the day after the suspect has left the area or the trial is over is no use. Timely results are difficult to achieve, and along with evidence management (see ‘Evidence management’), require close liaison with customer agencies: police and prosecutors. In some cases efficiencies will result from centralization especially where expensive capital equipment incorporating automation is involved (for example automated immunoassays on centrifugal fast analyzers and confirmation with automated MS or MS-MS for toxicology). In other cases a small local service will be better (for example drug assay and firearms examination). Organization thus needs to be aware of:
• The range of disciplines provided and their interactions (Table 5).
• Customer service standards required.
• Technology availability and cost.
• Policies on case acceptance, prioritization and disposal.

External factors

The laboratory does not exist in isolation. It is either part of another organization with a mandate for law enforcement or laboratory services or seeks to meet a perceived demand. Demographic and geographic factors (Table 6), the nature of the parent organization (Table 3), the nature of the funding mechanism (Table 4), and the legislative and governmental norms of the jurisdiction served will all influence the way in which the laboratory is organized.
However, a review of the nature of the organization of laboratories which have been accredited leads to the conclusion that there is no optima way to organize a forensic science laboratory. However, scrutiny of the best practice examples reveals that the best laboratory:
• Reports to someone close to chief executive level in the host agency.
• Is accredited.
• Measures and responds to customer needs while maintaining scientific integrity.
• Has a significant proportion (at least 25%) of its operating budget devoted to quality assurance and training.
Laboratories which meet these benchmark standards are able to deal effectively with the requirements placed upon them by external factors.

Next post:

Previous post: