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FIDEX: Improving forensic data exchange in the 21st century

Written by Robin Jones

Reducing forensic crime laboratory backlogs is a problem with a number of root causes and, as such, offers no easy solution. In fact, it is likely that the problem will get worse in the coming years because of a number of interrelated issues. The forensic sciences are constantly evolving to enhance law enforcement’s ability to close cases. Recent studies demonstrate that high-volume offenses such as property crimes can be solved by comparing crime scene DNA with databases in a cost effective manner—not only to solve crime, but to prevent future recidivistic crime such as breaking and entering.

This application of forensics to less violent criminal investigations will lead to increased caseloads within the crime laboratory. While forensic science provides a reliable mechanism to aide law enforcement officers in their search for truth, the recent release of “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” calls into question many of the techniques and practices commonly used within the forensic sciences community and, at the very least, is likely to increase the amount of documentation required in every forensic examination. Moreover, the current economic crisis has squeezed laboratory budgets, and many open analyst positions are not being filled.

According to the 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics Census of Publicly Funded Crime Laboratories, laboratories received “nearly 2.7 million new cases, including a much larger number of separate requests for services during calendar year 2002.” This same report cited that of the labs that responded, nearly 360,000 requests for forensic services were backlogged by the end of 2005—an increase of about 24% as compared to the end of 2002.

With the objective of reducing this backlog, the Forensic Information Data Exchange (FIDEX) project seeks to provide a comprehensive set of standards-based technological solutions to crime laboratories to reduce the amount of time analysts spend on each case. The origins of this project date back to 2007 when the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), through its cooperative agreement with the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC), began exploring ways to leverage technology among the crime laboratory stakeholder community. The NFSTC contracted with the IJIS Institute and Waterhole Software to identify and develop solutions to address the forensic case backlog issue. Throughout the end of 2007 and early 2008, a series of roundtable meetings hosted by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission gathered criminal justice practitioners and Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) software providers with the intent of identifying possible solutions. This effort culminated in the identification of three business areas ripe for immediate improvement: forensic examination request, forensic examination status update; and case disposition update.

Forensic Examination Request

Although law enforcement or prosecutorial agencies typically submit forensic examination requests to the crime laboratory, the vast majority of requests originate from law enforcement agencies. An informal assessment of 94 crime laboratories performed by the IJIS Institute indicated that only 13% of law enforcement agencies submit examination requests electronically. In addition to the issues associated with duplicative data entry, a paper-based form increases the likelihood of miscommunication between these exchange partners. In fact, survey respondents indicated that the majority of submissions require some degree of clarification. For example, a number of laboratories report receiving requests asking for a “Trace DNA” examination. Among crime laboratory analysts, it is well known that a trace examination request is very different than a request for DNA analysis and, as such, the analyst must contact the requesting officer to clarify the examination request. Further, upon analysis of the evidence, the crime laboratory analyst may recommend analyses that were originally requested, which also requires communication back to the submitting agency. The FIDEX tool will provide an electronic platform for the submission of forensic examination requests, which will not only standardize the process for law enforcement, but it will streamline the case management intake procedure within the crime laboratory.

Examination Status Update

The 2005 BJS Crime Laboratory Census estimates that “about 75% of the forensic requests pending at the beginning of 2005 had been held for 30 days or more and were classified as backlogged.” While most crime laboratories classify a case as “backlogged” if it is not processed within 30 days, the turnaround time among forensic analyses is extremely variable—ranging from days for blood alcohol to nearly a year for DNA. The longer the backlog is on a case, the more likely it is that the detective will contact the laboratory for a status update. Based on data derived from an informal FIDEX assessment conducted by the IJIS Institute, an average laboratory will spend over 5,000 hours every year just responding to examination status updates. Considering that an estimated 75% of all casework is “backlogged,” it can be extrapolated that nationally, tens of thousands of man hours each year are expended addressing requests for case status.

Case Disposition

Forensic evidence is a powerful evidentiary tool. Even when the results have not been reported out of the crime laboratory, detectives and prosecutors can use the existence of forensic evidence in connection with a crime as a powerful tool to advance their case. Detectives can obtain a confession, or prosecutors can secure a plea bargain when the suspect becomes aware that forensic evidence exists that can connect them to the scene of a crime. However, all too often, crime laboratory administrators and analysts report that examinations are completed only to find out that the case had been disposed of weeks before. This explicit waste of resources is an issue that can be addressed if up-to-date case disposition status is efficiently communicated back to the crime laboratory. Realizing the implicit value of resolving this issue, the disposition exchange will allow the crime laboratory to reconcile disposition information, thereby allowing them to more effectively prioritize casework.

FIDEX Portal

Given the breadth of these challenges, a scalable technological solution is necessary to facilitate the exchange of information and thereby significantly improve business processes across jurisdictions. The anticipated FIDEX project deliverables will encompass a series of solutions that will streamline the process of forensic case submission and provide near real-time disposition information to not only enhance coordination with the prosecuting agency, but to allow for prioritization of casework processing. To accomplish these tasks, the FIDEX team has developed a prototype Web service architecture that demonstrates the functionality and utility of FIDEX. Regardless of agency size, the portal allows implementation partners to ensure that data elements and functional requirements align with their specific business requirements while providing a model environment for practitioners to test and evaluate its components. Recognizing that many agency budgets do not allow for overly complicated IT solutions, the FIDEX architecture leverages the most powerful information exchange technologies by using an economical Web-based application. In its simplest standalone configuration, FIDEX will allow state and regional crime laboratories to seamlessly share information with partner law enforcement or prosecutorial agencies in a secure environment.

The FIDEX Portal is a Web-based application that is designed to act as a central hub, which runs on an intranet server at the crime laboratory. Authorized users are able to log into the software and submit their examination request electronically. The software is highly configurable to allow agencies and laboratories a great deal of flexibility in the amount of data validation that is performed during the examination request. For example, the portal is capable of limiting the types of examinations available based on the type of evidence to be submitted. The data components contained in the application are based upon the evidence examination request, or long form, traditionally used by law enforcement. Therefore, upon completion of the “digital” long form in FIDEX, a hard copy can be printed out that contains key identifiers and will accompany the physical evidence when it is transported to the crime laboratory. Additionally, upon completion of the examination request in FIDEX, the laboratory is automatically notified of the examination request. This allows the laboratory to have a prerequisite record of pending examination requests and provides an efficient system for managing caseloads before they arrive at intake.

Import Capabilities

A significant objective of the FIDEX Architecture is to improve and streamline business process. Although automating examination requests with a Web-based application offers significant advantages, additional benefits can be realized when much of that information is imported from external systems. A more advanced configuration of the FIDEX Architecture allows the portal to be configured so that information can be imported from law enforcement record or evidence management systems. For example, once an officer has entered the appropriate identifier, such as an incident number, into the FIDEX portal, the application would automatically request incident information from the law enforcement system and populate the portal with the relevant information. Recognizing privacy and security are paramount issues. Access to the RMS data is set at the agency level and can be customized to meet the needs of state or local requirements.

The potential benefits of this exchange are maximized by providing access to information residing in the FIDEX Portal. Once an officer completes his examination request, the “digital” long form can be electronically exported into the crime laboratory LIMS system, eliminating the need for duplicate data entry. It is anticipated that FIDEX data elements will become an industry standard, thereby allowing LIMS software providers to allow this interchange to occur seamlessly.

Test and Evaluate

One of the major strengths in the development lifecycle utilized at NIJ is the process of testing and evaluating theory or technologies developed for criminal justice practitioners. The FIDEX team is in the early stages of identifying pilot locations for implementation of the FIDEX architecture. This pilot implementation will allow for refinement of functionality and data elements and provide a practical environment in which the vigor of the tool can be tested. The pilot activity will also allow practitioners to use and evaluate the tool in the context of their existing business processes so efficiencies can be realized and phased in gradually.

Initial Assessment

To determine the viability of FIDEX implementation, an initial evaluation is conducted to include technical acumen. Recognizing the enormous variability of technological capabilities among crime laboratories and police departments, the team will then collect data to establish baseline data points for later evaluation on the benefits the FIDEX architecture can provide. Because the project is just entering the testing and evaluation phase, these qualifiers and measurement points will be finalized upon completion of a pilot implementation.

Based on the initial findings, the FIDEX team has narrowed the list of candidate pilot sites to the four agencies and organizations listed below. Each has demonstrated a practical willingness and an interest in the benefits offered by the project. Additionally, all are capable of supporting the technological infrastructure required for the portal implementation: the Phoenix Police Department and Crime Laboratory; the Boston Police Department and Crime Laboratory; the Arizona Department of Public Safety Crime Laboratory; and the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory. It is anticipated that the pilot implementation with these organizations will occur over the next year, and that by mid-2010 the toolkit and an implementation guide will be ready for public comment.

Follow-Up

Although the FIDEX team is now focusing on pilot implementations, the architecture continues to undergo refinement as a result of practitioner input. Stakeholder engagement when developing tools and technologies for law enforcement and crime laboratories is paramount. Therefore, if you would like to provide feedback or participate in the development and/or implementation of FIDEX, please contact Robin Jones at robin.w.jones @usdoj.gov or Aaron Gorrell at aaron.gorrell@waterholesoftware.com.

Robin Jones has been a consultant for the National Institute of Justice for 11 years where she supports executive-level strategic initiatives and projects. Aaron Gorrell is CEO of Waterhole Software Inc. Waterhole Software is a Colorado corporation that specializes in helping justice organizations leverage technology to its maximum potential.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jul/Aug 2009

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