September 2011

Human Touch

There’s more to processing evidence than cutting-edge technology—and it’s far less high tech than you may think by MEGAN ABBOTT


From the outside, the Los Angeles Regional Crime Laboratory, a state-of-the-art facility opened about four years ago, looks like any other campus building at Cal State Los Angeles. Its contents, though—centrifuges, gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers, indoor shooting ranges and tanks, a scanning electron microscope so sensitive to vibration that the building was specially designed to protect it from earthquake threats—call to mind either the nightclub pyrotechnics of the labs on prime-time TV or, more ominously, the kind of sleek, soulless silo that might spring from the mind of Philip K. Dick.

Its dazzling facilities seem to reflect our growing sense that, in the age of DNA, technology has trumped the human factor. Are we even needed anymore to solve crimes, or is our role limited to waiting in front of a computer screen for a flickering database to yield the truth?

The relationship is complicated. Yvette Sanchez-Owens, commanding officer at the Los Angeles Police Department Scientific Investigation Division joint city-county lab, offers a peek behind its gleaming facade and a window into a field that has experienced stunning changes in recent years, driven both by technological advances and the glamour quotient. “We used to work in a sardine can,” she says, “a dark, dingy building that had no windows and antiquated equipment.”

“Human element”—the phrase itself calls to mind Minority Report or Tron. One way technology is put to use in the lab is as a fail-safe for that human element.

Twenty-nine DNA technicians were wedged into a space designed for eight. “We were on the second floor of our building, and our LAPD helicopters landed above us.” Now, lab technicians work in an eco-friendly space filled with windows and natural light—a more human place for a discipline that is in many ways less and less warm-blooded.

While once we may have pictured rows and rows of heads bowed over microscopes, that image has since been replaced by the perception that crime-lab work is all digital, heads poised in front of glowing computer screens that simply spit out all the answers.

In spite of more congenial digs, day-to-day work has been utterly transformed in recent years by automation. “Twenty years ago,” says Sanchez-Owens, “so much was reliant on folks’ good memories. Someone would have had to remember seeing something—like a similar weapon—and it was near impossible, especially in an area the size of Los Angeles. Now, databases enable workers to search for firearms, fingerprints and other matches across the country.”

Still, in speaking about the advancements in the lab and the dramatic innovations in the field in recent years, she emphatically stresses the key role of the technicians. “These are all tools,” she says of the machines. “You can’t really rely on technology, because you have to have a human element.”

“Human element”—the phrase itself calls to mind Minority Report or Tron. After all, the “human” has always been a knotty proposition in forensics, as with any science. What about the human in a field where “less human” is, in many ways, one of the goals?

One way technology is put to use in the lab is as a fail-safe for that human element. “Humans, being humans, make errors, and occasionally you’d get a tube switched or put the wrong chemical in the wrong tube,” she says. With robotics, this work has been trans-formed. “The robot knows how much to put in and into which tube, and it just moves it through a kind of assembly line,” Sanchez-Owens says. “It takes human error out of the process.”

But it’s not just a question of technology’s capacity to expedite and improve upon the work of crime labs but also to refine it—particularly in the field of DNA. Not long ago, crime scenes had to yield a fairly large quantity of biological material. Now, technicians are able get a biological profile by amplifying tiny samples. And Sanchez-Owens predicts even greater
refinements to come.

Take, for instance, the rise in the use of “touch DNA”—samples as small as skin cells left behind on victims, weapons or other objects at a crime scene. “It has to be a really good, clean sample,” says Sanchez-Owens, noting the technology is not yet commonly used in this lab. “You wouldn’t want to go to the supermarket and try to get touch DNA off the door handle, because 1,000 people touched the door handle.” But if a suspect carries, for example, a personalized pen and drops it during a crime, the lab may be able to get touch DNA off the pen, which could be useful in tying the suspect to the crime.

Technology isn’t always the answer to DNA-related matters. The lab also butts up against the very human problem of funding. In 2008, a city audit revealed thousands of untested rape kits sitting in LAPD freezers, some for longer than 10 years. In April, the backlog was finally cleared, a process made possible only through the cobbling together of public funds, federal grants and private donations as small as $5.

The results were gratifying: about 1,000 positive identifications out of 6,132 kits. But the process points to the larger question of how a lab can maintain such state-of-the-art facilities and be prepared to support the advances to come. DNA testing in particular is an expensive proposition.

“It’s a huge resource eater,” Sanchez-Owens says, pointing to the costs of staff time (unlike some lab positions, DNA techs are required to have a natural-science degree), supplies and the equipment itself. DNA has considerable potential in solving property crimes, for instance, but “we just don’t have the money right now to go down that path,” reserving it only for large-scale serious cases, such as a string of robberies.

Even if the lab’s resources were limitless, DNA evidence alone is frequently not enough...or is even beside the point. “Let’s say you had a rape case where the suspect used a condom and the victim had previously had sex with her husband,” Sanchez-Owens says. “If we test that, we get the husband’s profile, which is not useful to this type of case.” These real-life complications are often lost amid the growing public perception that DNA is a panacea, erasing any uncertainty. Fueling this perception is the CSI phenomenon—its societal impact on the field proving nearly as weighty as that of technology.

“There have been both good things and bad things that have come out of that show,” Sanchez-Owens says. The flood of interested, eager applicants increasingly entering the field and the exposure it has given the pure science have been a boon. But the so-called CSI effect remains a challenge. As potent as technology is right now, it cannot match its powers on the show.

“It’s a bit humorous that sometimes TV is dead wrong,” Sanchez-Owens says, pointing in particular to the CSI fiction that you can plug a fingerprint into a computer and the image of that person will appear on the screen. The series and its offspring have become fodder for the lab’s very typical workplace atmosphere: water-cooler talk, complete with attendant eye rolling. “We’ll say, ‘Did you see that last night?’ ” she mimics. “That’s a pretty fancy computer. Boy, do I wish I had that computer.”

The larger problem is not glamo­rization but the false promise CSI and its ilk offer that technology can solve almost anything—and that with the rise of DNA, all solutions are a finger click away.

The larger problem, though, is not glamorization but the false promise CSI and its ilk offer that technology can solve almost anything—and that with the rise of DNA, all solutions are a finger click away. It is a perpetual frustration to lab workers.

“Someone recently said to me, ‘Well, we can’t convict him if there’s no DNA in the case,’ ” Sanchez-Owens recalls. “Well, how do you have DNA in a drive-by shooting? He drove by—there was no DNA.” For the LAPD lab, as for those across the country, it becomes a constant exercise in jury education, bringing public expectations back down to reality.

And the reality is this: DNA is a very powerful tool, but it’s still just a tool, one of many in the arsenal of forensic technicians. To this day, much of lab work remains a pair of human eyes strained over an evidence slide, a human hand on a magnifying glass and, most of all, the human mind putting together pieces of information.

“Even if we roboticized every process at some point 100 years in the future,” Sanchez-Owens says, “you would still need people to create this technology, to set up the systems. It’s kind of like the old saying that they talk about in computers: Garbage in, garbage out.”

Most important, however, is the human capacity to consider context, to view evidence and crime scenes holistically—to see what a computer still cannot.

“Scanning what is available at a crime scene and determining what might give you information that might be helpful to the case—you can’t do that with a computer,” Sanchez-Owens reiterates. “A human person has to put that evidence into context.” The equation needs the human element to find the solution. By example, she points to latent-prints analysis as one of the most resolutely human-based aspects to lab work.

While there is a powerful database to run prints though, it only spits out possibilities. “It may give you 1 or 20,” she says. “It takes a person to sit there under a microscope and compare the possibilities against the evidence prints and make a determination if they can find the match or not. A computer simply can’t do that.”

Even computers far more refined might, in fact, lack the even less tangible quality required when staring at dozens of fragmented and partial finger and palm prints and trying to make connections. There is a reason, Sanchez-Owens notes, that visual and artistic individuals are drawn to the discipline. “You have to have an eye for it, and people that have an artistic eye tend to do very well because they can see that when the rest of us might not be able to.”

“It is very visual,” agrees Denise Williams, the LAPD lab’s principal forensic-print specialist. “So those with an artist’s eye do well in this profession.” She compares the experience of looking at a finger or palm print impression to examining one of Where’s Waldo’s intricate labyrinths—a lush human topography of furrows and ridges that requires a human eye to uncover all its secrets. “You’re searching for these minute details, hundreds or thousands of ridges, to find what you’re looking for. The computer can offer us candidates, but we have to do the rest.”

“We have magnifying glasses in our hands every day.”

MEGAN ABBOTT is the Edgar Award–winning author of four crime novels. Her novel The End of Everything was just published.