Crime lab expert: Minnesota should mandate accreditation

A national forensics expert said Minnesota should require public crime labs to seek accreditation from professional organizations in order to maintain professional standards.

The St. Paul police department suspended drug testing at its crime lab this week after workers and the director testified that they weren't following any standard procedures and maintained little documentation.

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis forensic and investigative science Director Jay Siegel told MPR News Friday that there are no federal rules to regulate crime labs.

"It's up to individual states to decide how to regulate their crime laboratories," Siegel said. "There are some voluntary programs in place, but nothing required or mandated of state or local laboratories."

Despite that, Siegel said more than 90 percent of crime labs in the country are accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors or another agency.

Minnesota law does not require accreditation, although three crime labs in the state are accredited. The St. Paul crime lab is not one of them.

"If the St. Paul crime lab were accredited then just about everything that was discussed in terms of what's needed, what's missing and what's not being done, all that would have been done," Siegel said. "There was nothing that happened at the St. Paul laboratory that would not have been addressed by the accreditation process."

Siegel said troubles at the St. Paul crime lab should spur the state to require accreditation of all Minnesota crime labs.

"In addition, I think all the personnel in the laboratories, all the scientists, should be certified," Siegel said. "There is a voluntary process that exists for certifying fingerprint examiners, drug chemists, DNA analysts... that would establish a level of competency among the scientists that, again, would have prevented a lot of what happened here."

The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board charges annual fees of between $1,000 and $35,000 for accreditation, according to the organization's website. The St. Paul lab is relatively small. The lab's annual fees would be near the minimum end of the organization's scale.

"The cost is not prohibitive," Siegel said. "But I think you have to ask the other question: What's the cost of not doing it?"

Court documents show that senior police officials knew about problems with the city's crime lab months before it was revealed in court this week.

St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith has vowed to fix problems exposed in a Dakota County court this week. Smith said Thursday that he plans to explore bringing in outside scientists.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman released his letter to Smith Friday. In it, Coleman said he expected the chief to review accreditation options for the lab and hire "staff with scientific expertise."