By Staci Strobl, Crimcast Co-Founder
Late last year, I had the opportunity to accompany Prof. Ava Phipps and her students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville to the Illinois State Crime Laboratory in Chicago. Being a criminologist more focused on the sociological aspects of the field, the chance to see up close how forensics operates was a fun departure. At the crime lab, scientific methods are used to understand and interpret individual pieces of evidence in their own right and in the context of a larger criminal investigation; although larger sociological patterns may inform an investigation, ultimately case evidence is legally and constitutionally specific for purposes of due process.
Despite the unique-ness of each case, however, I could not help asking the laboratory scientists about what they observed across cases. Clearly, working in a crime lab that primarily services the Chicago area— a place where unfortunately the violent crime rate is way above the national average for a metropolitan area— would provide some fairly reliable insights about what is going on “on the streets.”
We started our tour at the Drug Chemistry unit, which employs 40 analysts and handles 26,000 pieces of evidence a year. Tasked with being the legal determiners of drug type and weight, the analyst who spoke with us indicated that, like the mainstream media is reporting, heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine show up most often. Increasingly, the analyst noted, homemade fentanyl is being detected. She also noted that when a major music festival, such as Lollapalooza, comes to the area, there is a spike in the relatively low level of seized hallucinogens, primarily LSD and mushrooms.
From the DNA unit, we learned that, contrary to a recent National Geographic article, DNA phenotyping is not practiced. Touted as the next best thing in ruling out suspects, phenotyping allows investigators to take DNA that can’t be matched to an existing identity in the DNA database (via the typical genotyping), but can produce information about a suspect’s characteristics, such as eye and hair color, and likely racial identity. However, according to the DNA analyst I spoke with, phenotyping is not practiced in Illinois as it is considered a problematic for its potential for over-interpretation, as well as having racial profiling implications.
“There is a misconception that we [in a crime lab] are interested in building a case. We are not. Our goal is to use biological matter and DNA to establish connections between a suspects, scenes, and items.” The analyst saw phenotyping as contributing to speculation that could derail cases.
Our visit to the Ballistics unit revealed a very busy office although specific numbers of guns and ammunition analyzed were not provided. Instead we were treated to an exciting performance of guns being discharged in machines, and striations being matched, at an incessant clip; the work seemed to be piling up and in this sense, Chicago was living up to its reputation. Here were the weapons behind the headlines and each one was being carefully considered in a kind of tragic ritual. I could not imagine the amount of sadness and suffering that belied many of the firearms.
The UW-Platteville students on the tour had the most questions for the Fingerprinting unit, experienced as most were from a Fingerprinting class at the university. They asked about the warehouses that houses several million fingerprint cards used before computer databases, tricks for dealing with partial prints, and also asking about career opportunities. For those who think biometrics (iris scans, facial recognition) will outshine traditional Fingerprinting, think again. Latent prints still make up a good part of the forensic information cases produce and the need for well-trained analysts remains.
Fingerprinting is arguably more of an art than a science, with matching, though aided by computers, still needing human decision-making (how many points of similarity make a good match?) and the human eye. New techniques in using the valleys, or spaces between the ridge-markings of a print, are providing new avenues of analysis.
With the constant barrage of media and entertainment about forensics, most of us probably harbor all sorts of mythologies about forensic science and forensic investigation, such as the speed and accuracy at which these things happen (evidence may sit for weeks waiting for analysis, and analysis may take days or weeks depending on its nature and complexity). Furthermore, in a high-crime metropolis like Chicago, triaging evidence constantly occurs with more serious and high-profile cases getting fast-tracked and routine burglaries being sidelined for a less busy day. Seeing this world in its laboratory reality helps to debunk some of these myths and put us in touch with the routine nature of evidence processing.
The natural-ness of forensics as a dominant mode of knowing about crime is relatively recent in human history, primarily in the last 150 years. The criminologist in me can’t help but marvel at how much has changed so fast. As a society we perhaps feel we understand crime so much better, perhaps even a violent crime spike in Chicago, but in fact, we know very little. We can document it and quantify it and prosecute it, but we still debate what it all means and how we can make society safer. Sadly, an academic focus on forensic investigation, forensic science, criminal justice and/or criminology remains a good job prospect precisely because, well, Chicago happens.