Book:The Laboratories of Our Lives: Labs, Labs Everywhere!/Labs by industry: Part 3/Law enforcement and forensics

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5.2 Law enforcement and forensics

Day 253 - West Midlands Police - Forensic Science Lab (7969822920).jpg

The forensic laboratory is responsible for aiding in crime investigations, helping investigators identify remains, place an alleged killer at a particular crime scene, or identify and characterize crime scene evidence. They also serve as training grounds for future forensic scientists. Less occasionally, forensic laboratories operate as private, third-party contract labs that work with government investigators or private industry to analyze DNA, fire debris, paint, etc. These labs provide many different services, including (but not limited to)[1][2][3]:

  • DNA analysis
  • fire debris analysis
  • metallurgical analysis
  • firearms and ballistics analysis
  • vehicle fluid analysis
  • trauma analysis
  • skeletal identification
  • body fluid identification
  • evidence screening
  • facial reconstruction
  • audio/image enhancement
  • carbon dating of remains

But how do law enforcement and forensic laboratories intersect the average person's life on a daily basis?

Your average person won't feel much impact from a forensic lab, at least in a direct sense. Indirectly, forensic labs help capture criminals, which in theory reduces the chances of a criminal running free to cross paths with you. Should you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of requiring the services of a forensic laboratory (whether to help solve a crime that has impacted you or help clear you of wrongdoing), you'll feel the impact more succinctly; this lab depends on tried and true techniques employed by knowledgeable laboratorians to solve crimes and give some measure of peace to those negatively affected by them. Without these labs, we'd arguably have more criminals get away with their crimes, leaving more cases unsolved.

5.2.1 Client types

Private - These labs are less common than government and academic labs, but where they do exist, they tend to take on contract analysis and consultation work for a variety of clients.

Examples include:

Government - Government forensic labs make up a significant chunk of the bunch, whether at the federal, state, or local level.

Examples include:

Academic - Academic forensic labs may be used by undergraduate students, but they are largely reserved for graduate level training of students. Some university forensic labs may also provide their facilities and services to government agencies and coroner's offices.

Examples include:

5.2.2 Functions

What are the most common functions? analytical, research/design, and teaching

What aspects and/or technologies are being analyzed, researched, and quality controlled? biological specimens, bullets and casings, computers, evidence, explosive devices, fingerprints, firearms, ink, insects, pollen and spores, remains

What sciences are being applied in these labs? biology, chemistry, cryptography, digital forensics, entomology, forensic anthropology, forensic engineering, forensic imaging, forensic odontology, medical science, molecular biology, physics, psychology, toxicology, veterinary forensics

What are some examples of test types and equipment?

Common test types include:

Age determination, Amino acid analysis, Biomolecular, Counterfeit detection, Cross-drive, DNA profiling, Failure, File carving, Fire debris, Forensic toxicology, Gunshot residue, Isotope analysis, Proficiency, Solubility

Industry-related lab equipment may include:

balance, binocular microscope, blood analyzer, burette, centrifuge, chemical storage cabinet, chromatographic, compound microscope, confocal microscope, cryostat, elecrophoresis equipment, evaporator, evidence drying cabinet, extractor, fingerprint development chamber, fluorescent plate reader, freezers and refrigerators, FTIR microscope, fume hood, fuming chamber, graphite furnace, hyperspectral imaging system, microplate handler, microscope, microtome, PCR system, refractometer, spectrometer, spectrophotometer, stereo microscope, viscometer

What else, if anything, is unique about the labs in the law enforcement and forensics industry?

Forensic science is significantly cross-discipline in nature, with anthropology, biology, chemistry, cryptography, entomology, medical science, toxicology, and a host of other disciplines getting involved with the analysis and characterization of a wide variety of evidence types. As such, gaps may exist in knowledge and know-how in some areas of analysis, requiring the recruitment of outside help for more esoteric analyses.[4]

5.2.3 Informatics in the law enforcement and forensics industry

A 2014 paper in the Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences highlighted "both the organizational challenges and the information system architecture" of forensic informatics software implemented in Queensland, "which established workflows tailored to the timely production of forensic intelligence to reduce, disrupt and prevent crime."[5] Indeed, that goal is similar to forensic laboratories around the world: how can data management systems and other informatics technology improve forensic intelligence? Informatics can support forensic pathology and death investigations, which often involve a significant amount of textual and image data associated with both autopsy and scene of death.[6] Additionally, informatics can better guide investigations into computer and network forensics, including data recovery, intrusion detection and analysis, and computer fraud.[7] Various reports over the years suggest increasing adoption of information management systems like LIMS and case management systems in the forensic and medical examiner's lab, in part due to the benefits mentioned prior.[8][9][10]

Offshoots of informatics application to forensic science also occur, as can be seen in the IEEE Intelligence and Security Informatics conference, which discusses the intersections of informatics, IT, medical and bioinformatics, forensic science, and many other fields with the goal of governments' "anticipation, prevention, preparedness and response to security events, in physical, cyber, enterprise, and societal spaces."[11]

5.2.4 LIMSwiki resources and further reading

LIMSwiki resources

Further reading


  1. "Laboratory Services". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved 29 June 2022. 
  2. "Forensic Services". Armstrong Forensic Laboratory, Inc. Retrieved 29 June 2022. 
  3. "LSU Faces Laboratory". Louisiana State University. Retrieved 29 June 2022. 
  4. National Research Council (2009). Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. National Academies Press. pp. 348. doi:10.17226/12589. 
  5. O'Malley, T. (2014). "Forensic informatics enabling forensic intelligence". Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences 47 (1): 27–35. doi:10.1080/00450618.2014.922618. 
  6. Levy, B. (2015). "The need for informatics to support forensic pathology and death investigation". Journal of Pathology Informatics 6: 32. doi:10.4103/2153-3539.158907. 
  7. "Computer and Network Forensics - INF 528 (3 Units)" (PDF). USC Viterbi School of Engineering. 2015. Retrieved 29 June 2022. 
  8. Durose, M.R.; Walsh, K.A.; Burch, A.M. (August 2012). "Census of Publicly Funded Forensic Crime Laboratories, 2009" (PDF). Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved 14 June 2022. 
  9. Levy, Bruce P. (1 March 2013). "Implementation and User Satisfaction With Forensic Laboratory Information Systems in Death Investigation Offices" (in en). American Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology 34 (1): 63–67. doi:10.1097/PAF.0b013e31827ab5c6. ISSN 0195-7910. 
  10. National Forensic Laboratory Information System (October 2019). "NFLIS-Drug 2019 Survey of Crime Laboratory Drug Chemistry Sections Report" (PDF). U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Archived from the original on 18 March 2021. Retrieved 14 June 2022. 
  11. "IEEE ISI 2017". Retrieved 29 June 2022.