innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Friday, April 20, 2007

New York police commisioner orders forensic shakeup

This article appeared in the New York Times on April 20, 2007:

After Falsified Test Results, Kelly Orders Forensic Shakeup

By Thomas J. Lueck

With the disclosure that two civilian employees reported false results in testing drug bags in 2002 at the police crime laboratory, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly has ordered a shakeup of the Forensic Investigations Division and the creation of an oversight panel, the authorities said yesterday.

The changes come as a rebuke to the forensic unit’s former commander, Deputy Chief Denis McCarthy, who was recently transferred to a patrol division.

Chief McCarthy, a 27-year veteran of the department, was in charge in 2002 when the two employees were found to have engaged in “dry-labbing,” or cutting corners in the process of testing for drugs during an internal integrity test conducted by the department. In addition, the forensics unit failed to report the transgression to state officials and to a national laboratory accreditation board, as it is required to do.

Chief McCarthy’s transfer and the 2002 drug testing falsification were reported yesterday by The New York Post. Mr. Kelly said that Inspector Kevin J. Walsh, formerly of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau, had replaced Chief McCarthy as commander of the forensics division.

A spokesman for the Police Department, Paul J. Browne, said the falsified test results in 2002 had no bearing on actual court cases, since they were revealed in a routine procedure of “blind proficiency tests” designed as internal checks on the integrity and competence of civilian criminalists, 100 of whom are now employed by the crime laboratory.

But some critics are not convinced that it is an isolated incident. Peter Neufeld, a lawyer and co-founder of the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal group that uses DNA evidence to represent people it believes have been wrongly convicted, said it was unclear how many cases were affected in New York and elsewhere by such falsified lab work.

Mr. Browne said the department’s own testing revealed that the two employees had tried to save time by failing to inspect the contents of all the bags believed to hold cocaine, and reporting that they had tested them all. One technician, or criminalist, was told to inspect 37 bags and reported that all contained cocaine, even though four did not. The other criminalist said all six bags contained cocaine, but one did not.

The case was handled by the Internal Affairs Division, and both employees were disciplined in accordance with police policy, Mr. Browne said. But the violation of department rules came when the forensic unit failed to file a report on the matter with both the state and with the American Society of Criminal Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board, a national oversight organization that accredits New York state forensic labs.

“Our own testing worked, but the lapse came in failing to notify,” Mr. Browne said. He said notification would be one of several procedures studied by a new Forensic Science Review Committee being formed with four senior police officials and two civilian forensic scientists.
But the creation of an oversight panel made up mainly of police personnel does not go far enough, Mr. Neufeld said. He added, “Whenever you have a scandal like this, it is essential to bring in an independent entity without any possibility of conflicts of interest.”

Mr. Browne said the 2002 violations had come under renewed scrutiny last month after the current civilian director of the crime lab, Dr. Peter Pizzola, was informed by state officials of an anonymous report that someone in a crime laboratory at an unspecified location was dry-labbing. When he asked about past violations by New York City criminalists, Dr. Pizzola, who was not with the division in 2002, learned that there had been cases that year that were not reported outside the department.

The police said that Dr. Pizzola’s predecessor, W. Mark Dale, had maintained in a recent interview that he believed the violations should not have been reported outside the department because they were being handled by Internal Affairs.

Mr. Browne said that one employee responsible for the 2002 violations, Elizabeth Mansour, had retired, and that the other, Rameschandra J. Patel, had been suspended from crime lab work and restricted to answering telephones.

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