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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
The traditional U.S. forensic science community generally has not been included directly in planning, preparedness, resourcing, response, training, and the exercising of large-scale or specialized forensic science capabilities for terrorism and homeland security, although the FBI Laboratory provides a link between homeland security applications of forensic science and traditional uses in criminal justice. One reason for this segmentation is that the traditional community has heavy commitments to day-to-day law enforcement requirements, timelines, and backlogs. Also, many of the homeland security applications of forensic science require specialized expertise and infrastructure that are not widespread, and they might require access to information that is protected by security classification. Although major metropolitan law enforcement agencies and forensic laboratories, such as those in New York City and Los Angeles, have developed some specialized tactical capacities of these types, most of the U.S. forensic science enterprise does not and will not legitimately invest in such capacities and will rely instead on agencies such as the FBI and those who are part of the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces11 in some 100 U.S. cities.
For the most part, the specialized capacities and capabilities needed for homeland security are not warranted for most civilian forensic science laboratories and medical examiner offices, although there are exceptions, and some of the skills embodied in these new forensic efforts may have direct applicability to traditional forensic science disciplines. However, the skills embodied within the traditional forensic science and medical examiners communities are potentially an important asset for assisting in homeland security. The geographic dispersion of those communities is an additional asset, because a security event or natural disaster can occur anywhere, beyond the quick reach of specialized federal capabilities. In addition, to the extent that members of the forensic science and medical examiners communities might respond to WMD attacks before specialized experts can, it is important to train those local responders sufficiently so that they can properly preserve critical evidence while protecting themselves from harmful exposure. More generally, there would be value in strengthening the links between civil forensic scientists and those affiliated with DOD and DHS, so that all sectors can pool their knowledge.
The medical examiner community, in particular, could be viewed as a geographically distributed and rapidly deployable “corps” that can augment federal experts in efforts to monitor emerging public health threats or respond to catastrophes. When a catastrophic event takes place, whether it is the result of nature or terrorism, a large contingent of medical examin-
Protecting America Against Terrorist Attack: A Closer Look at the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces. Federal Bureau of Investigation. December 2004. Available at www.fbi.gov/page2/dec04/jttf120114.htm.