In 2003, investigative journalists discovered an unsettling truth about the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory. According to reports, the lab hired incompetent and biased analysts who overstated evidence against hundreds of criminal defendants and put two innocent people behind bars. In short, police officers ran the lab instead of scientists, compromising quality and even objectivity.
Since then, the Houston City Counsel removed the lab from police control and restructured it under a new name, the Houston Forensic Science Center. Since then, the lab has made significant strides – ones the people of Houston should be proud of, said Houston Chronicle reporters William C. Thompson and Cliff Spiegelman in a recent article.
Thirteen years later, some are suggesting a seemingly absurd change: Putting the lab back under police control. But for many people, this idea doesn’t make sense.
Under new management, the lab’s top administrative team has an in-depth scientific background. New administration not only reduced backlogs but also implemented creative, demanding procedures to improve the center’s overall performance – even building safeguards against bias and error. Even though the Houston Forensic Science Center faces the same challenges as other crime labs (time and resource shortages), administrators have been transparent and prudent in the allocation of both.
Despite the lab’s undeniable progress, an article from Police Quarterly argued that leaving the lab as an independent entity could create “serious, unintended consequences.”
Members of the Harris County Commissioners Court sparked renewed interest in the lab earlier this month when they suggested the county take over the center, merging it with Harris County crime labs.
Others believe shaking up the center’s structure would disrupt any progress it’s made in recent years. Peter Stout, the chief operating officer at the science center said, “I think cooperation between the two organizations is entirely possible. But [a] merger? They risk backing up demonstrable progress that we’ve made to this point.”
Before it became the Houston Forensic Science Center, the lab was thought to be one of the worst crime labs in the country; today, it’s on its way to becoming one of the most successful, and merging it with the police department may not be worth the risk of losing this progress.
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