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Letter to the Editor - Forensic Science Communications - July 2007

Letter to the Editor - Forensic Science Communications - July 2007


July 2007 - Volume 9 - Number 3

Letter to the Editor

The following Letter to the Editor was originally published in the January 1987 issue of Crime Laboratory Digest, which preceded Forensic Science Communications. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author, Rondal Bridgemon. Other than minor style changes, the letter is printed verbatim. Individuals wishing to cite the letter should refer to and cite the original:

Bridgemon, R. No time for research? Crime Laboratory Digest (1987) 14:3–4.

Mr. Bridgemon retired as Director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety Southern Regional Crime Laboratory in February 2002. He served as a Staff Inspector for the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) from 2002 to 2005, as well as Past President of ASCLD and the Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientists (SWAFS). He currently works part-time for the Arizona Department of Public Safety and travels extensively in Mexico. 

Mr. Bridgemon had this to say about the letter he wrote more than 20 years ago:

I’ve reread my old editorial, and it certainly could have been written today. I know our system has historically had an easier time getting equipment than personnel, so “research” time is just as hard to come by today. By coincidence, my reference to copper wire thefts is current. Copper prices have risen to the point that theft of power lines and new house wiring is so dramatic today that the state of Arizona is trying to pass a law that will require metal recycling companies to identify and record sales of all large amounts of copper.

No Time for Research?

This past summer, I had the opportunity to visit crime laboratories in the People’s Republic of China, England, West Germany, and Switzerland. While comparisons between United States laboratories and each of those I visited would make interesting topics for discussion, it was something they all had in common that impressed me the most. Compared to us, all these systems spend a good deal of time conducting research and publishing results.

While the caseloads and court pressures in this country are greater, due primarily to our criminal justice system, I believe we have used this as an excuse for too long. We have been complaining for years that we are service organizations, not research facilities. The first priority is completion of casework, and if we are to do research, we need additional manpower. Unfortunately, a common problem among crime laboratories is that budget limitations do not permit hiring additional personnel.

We need a change of attitude! We’re supposed to be in charge of these laboratories! Two things must be recognized. First, all of our laboratories are currently doing valuable research; the findings are simply not being published. Second, our management style and leadership can promote additional research and ensure publication of results.

When I say we’re all doing research, I mean applied research. Pure forensic research is done occasionally, but applied research is routinely conducted in connection with case examinations. Often, in criminalistics, it involves the examination of manufacturing processes to determine class characteristics from individualistic ones. Time constraints often force one to seek shortcuts in procedures, and sample size forces the examiner to search for more sensitivity. At least one of your criminalists is probably doing applied research while you are reading this.

Of course, applied research is only of future value to the individual or laboratory that did the work, unless the findings are published. As a crime laboratory director who still does a lot of casework, I have personal examples. When the theft of copper wire was a lucrative business, I noticed striations running along the wire that might be of identification value. I spent a lot of time examining samples of wire after they passed through various drawdown dies and determined that indeed these markings change after a few inches. I was allotted the time to do the research. In fact, I never even requested it. I was working on a case! This work was valuable for the case, but I never informed the forensic community. Like most of us, I just began working on the next case.

About five years later, the results of a similar study appeared in the AFTE Journal. Had I published my research findings, it could have saved another criminalist a lot of time. Now, thanks to his efforts, no one else will have to repeat the work. Nevertheless, I continued to do similar studies but still did not take the time to record the results. When I became editor of the SWAFS Journal, I experienced that affliction familiar to all editors of publications for volunteer organizations—lack of material. Out of desperation, I dug up some old projects, did some additional work, and published four articles within three years. I did not expect any feedback, but to my surprise, I’ve received comments and questions from around the country on all four articles from criminalists working on similar cases. My work was valuable to other people! This is also true for the work being done by the people in your laboratory.

You are inhibiting the development of our field if you don’t actively encourage your personnel to publish. Let it be known that it is your policy to have this type of research published. When the work is being done, remind the criminalist to write an article or a “helpful hint” and submit it for publication. There are many regional newsletters that would be eager to print the material. Granted, many individuals don’t feel comfortable writing. Our system handled this by forming a publications committee. The committee critiques proposed articles, and it sometimes prepares papers based on researchers’ outlines.

While we may never have the necessary manpower to conduct pure research and simultaneously manage our caseloads, we can factor in “research time” as we prepare personnel budget requests based on the number of cases a criminalist can process per year. The effort on your part will be small compared to the rewards. A research-oriented director will boost morale, bring added recognition to the laboratory, and improve criminalists’ credibility in court. Procedural improvements can shorten case examination time and/or make it possible to utilize physical evidence that might have otherwise been overlooked. Additionally, if all crime laboratory directors will adopt a cooperative attitude, a good deal of time will be saved in our laboratories by a nationwide sharing of applied research.

Rondal Bridgemon