When implemented well, Transformational Forensics can quite literally, help law enforcement agencies transform their approach to solving gun crime, thus taking criminals off the streets and making communities safer.
But what IS transformational forensics?
- a further definition of transformational forensics;
- various strategies, and finally,
- examples of successful implementations.
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Your webinar is specifically about “transformational forensics.” I’ve heard of “transformational leadership,” but what exactly is transformational forensics? How is it different from how a forensics lab traditionally operates?
Ron Nichols: Transformational forensics is a commitment on the part of forensic science laboratories to collaborate with clients and stakeholders to identify needed change and creating a vision to guide that change so that our communities can become safer places for all to have an opportunity to reach their potential. As it is now, far too many children are growing up in an environment in which their future is being dictated by the circumstances of their community. As a result, they are living below their potential in an effort simply to survive and it feeds a continuing cycle of violence begetting violence.
For decades, forensic laboratories have become increasingly segregated from clients and stakeholders, confined in smaller organizational boxes. This has been further complicated by the seeming need for forensic laboratories to shift away from law enforcement, becoming more independent to lessen the perceived influence of bias negatively influencing casework. However, it is this segregation that inhibits a meaningful and strategic response to the violent crime plaguing our communities. Considering the abilities and technology available in contemporary forensic science laboratories, this isolation is a violation of the public entrustment that they should embrace.
The need was to get the technology and “we will figure the rest out later.”
The issue is that there was little time to figure out the rest and as a result,
the technology was not leveraged as well as it could have been to aid in investigations.
JCH: Can you share with us a little bit of where this concept originates? How did this idea get started in the Justice Arena?
Ron: It was March 30, 2017. My wife and I were in a worship service and I got pictures of nesting boxes and was frustrated because I was trying not to think about work and my soon to be pending retirement from ATF. But, it was then that I realized it was related to a presentation I was supposed to provide at a forensic conference in San Francisco about one month away. As I realized that, I simply let the thoughts flow. It was then that I was interrupted by my wife who came into the back where I was standing. She asked what I was thinking afterward making the comment, “Transformational Forensics.” When I returned home I researched it and realized the concept had not yet been introduced into the Justice Arena.
I spent the next couple of days researching the ideas and thoughts, coming up with the concept as I have already laid it out. It was introduced into the Justice Arena on May 8, 2017 at the California Association of Crime Laboratory Directors meeting in San Francisco, the area in which I have spent my entire career. Ironically, when I began my career in 1984, California forensic science laboratories seemed to be better integrated with the law enforcement agencies and more responsive to their investigative needs. However, since then, the segregation has increased and the availability of technology and what it could mean for investigations was so rapid that strategies for best implementation strategies were not well developed. The need was to get the technology and “we will figure the rest out later.” The issue is that there was little time to figure out the rest and as a result, the technology was not leveraged as well as it could have been to aid in investigations. As a result, California seemed to migrate further and further from its roots.
JCH: What are some examples of Crime Labs or Forensics offices that are “transformational?”
Ron: The Denver Police Department, in conjunction with ATF in Denver, developed a strategic and cohesive crime gun intelligence strategy that was designed to identify the serial shooters and get them off the streets. Established in January of 2013, they reported the following successes through March 2015: 310 confirmed links between shootings, 75 different shooters were identified and/or arrested. Of these identified and/or arrested, 34 were facing state charges, 13 were facing federal charges, and 5 parole revocations were made. In addition, 23 officer safety bulletins were issued, warning police of potential shooters of which they should be aware.
The Washington State Patrol has moved toward a similar concept to deal with the firearm-related violent crime in the Seattle area first, with the eventual goal of moving outward into the rest of the state. They have done an excellent job of segregation of responsibility, getting the right people at the right skill level to handle the various responsibilities. They have integrated investigations into the process very well such that there is good communication between the laboratory staff and various investigators handling the work. They have also partnered with the local agencies to get them actively involved in the process so that the local agencies are doing what they can do, thereby, helping the forensic laboratory to be free to focus on only what they can do. While still relatively new, the Seattle area should soon see results similar to that of Denver as the program moves toward maturity.
As of March 2015, Denver Police Department/ATF joint crime gun intelligence strategy has yielded: 310 confirmed links between shootings,
75 different shooters were identified and/or arrested.
Of these identified and/or arrested, 34 were facing state charges,
13 were facing federal charges,
and 5 parole revocations were made.
JCH: Something you said in the webinar description really struck me: “When minds and wills are committed to seeing a change done, there are ample examples of this being accomplished in ways that have allowed for investigators to remove active shooters off the streets while preserving the integrity of the evidence.” Expand on that. Why would a lab or agency embark on this path? What’s the benefit?
Ron: That’s an interesting question because the use of the word “would” implies that there is a personal benefit to be gained from embarking on such a path; and that ultimately it is a choice to be measured by gain. I think a better word is “should”. Laboratories and police agencies “should” embark on this path because they have a public entrustment, a public that is supposed to be able to trust them to function in the best interests of the community. Police agencies and forensic laboratories have been deciding how that should look and, in the last twenty to thirty years, they haven’t even been cohesive in doing that.
Instead, they see dwindling budgets, due in some part to the increased societal and governmental costs related to dealing with violent crime and its consequences. They see a community that is becoming increasingly hostile toward their efforts in the community, attacking police officers and police agencies becoming increasingly defensive. Laboratories are so overwhelmed with work that they are focused on the next case that goes to court. It has become a cycle of reacting to crime instead of responding to a crime problem. Much like the community they serve, the police agencies and forensic laboratories are letting the circumstances dictate the pace instead of setting the environment to change the circumstances.
There was a recent survey of eight US cities in which they determined a 10% decrease in violent crime would result in a governmental savings of $50 to $240 per resident in addition to an expected increase in housing value of $600 million to $4.4 billion. The savings alone would fund a comprehensive crime gun intelligence strategy allowing the housing value to increase the tax-base. So, the benefit of this move would not only benefit the citizens by reducing violent crime in the cities, but it would also help reduce governmental costs, allocating them more effectively than they are now. In addition, it increases the tax base allowing for better inner-city programs which in turn help to provide better opportunities to the community. This does benefit the laboratories and police agencies at the back end, but, they have to recognize the potential and make the necessary sacrifices on the front end to get there.
A 10% decrease in violent crime
would result in a governmental savings of $50 to $240 per resident
in addition to an expected increase in housing value of $600 million to $4.4 billion.
JCH: A large number of our readers and subscribers are in law enforcement, but we have representation from all parts of the justice arena. Can you share some specifics of what different types of justice professionals or first responders will gain by attending your webinar? What skills or new knowledge will they gain that they can immediately use the next day on the job?
Ron: Hopefully a shift in perspective. One of my favorite memories while at ATF was that a very successful crime gun intelligence effort was started in one city because an evidence technician heard about NIBIN and wanted to at least try to see if it could make a difference. The city did not have a forensic laboratory but, it did not stop them from dreaming what could be done with the resources that they had. And as they showed success on a smaller scale, they garnered increasing attention and as they did, more resources were re-allocated to the effort. The agency soon discovered that with a re-allocation of existing resources they could accomplish more than what they had been accomplishing and all because there an individual had a vision for something different. Thomas Edison said, “There’s a way to do it better – Find it.” That city did.
For forensic laboratories, which is still my passion, hopefully, a realization that they can be part of a solution that can have a lasting impact on a community. I was asked by a chief administrator why a program failed under particular leadership; a program and leadership with which I was very familiar. My response was that “It became too easy to say no, instead of trying to find a way to say yes.” With respect to NIBIN and crime gun intelligence, it is becoming evident by successful programs nationwide that laboratories can be either part of the solution or be left to watch in regret as a program was launched and succeeded without them. Ultimately it is best if laboratories can be involved as part of a collaborative effort. To do so requires a re-integration with the public to which they have an entrustment.