2/4/13 - law enforcement resists science

In today's selection -- though television shows such as CSI seem to promise an age of advanced, scientific law enforcement, in reality, law enforcement organizations are often slow to embrace these techniques and resistant to change:

"In 2010, and for the previous nine years running, CSI: Crime Scene Investi­gation ranked among the most popular shows on television in the United States. ... Watching these programs, the viewer knows that policing has changed. For every member of the CSI team using a gun, more wield test tubes, DNA sampling equipment, and all manner of futuristic gizmos designed to track down witnesses and catch the bad guys. The show signals a break with the past, because it revolves around the way police use modern science to find the guilty and bring them to justice. ... But this all-too-common view of modern police work using science to move into a gleaming, high-tech future turns out to be a myth. ...

"Brandon Mayfield's case makes a striking example. In March of 2004, terrorists bombed four commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and wound­ing approximately eighteen hundred. Spanish police soon found a partial fingerprint on a plastic bag in a car containing materials from the attack. Using a digital copy of the fingerprint sent by the Spanish police, a senior FBI fingerprint examiner made 'a 100% identification' of Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon attorney, whose prints appeared in government databases because of his military service and an arrest years earlier. Three other fingerprint experts confirmed the match of Mayfield to the print found on the bag: FBI supervisory fingerprint specialist Michael Wieners, who headed the FBI's Latent Print Unit; examiner John Massey, a retired FBI fingerprint specialist with thirty years of experience; and Kenneth Moses, a leading independent fingerprint examiner. The FBI arrested Mayfield, and at the Bureau's request, a court incarcerated him for two weeks, despite the fact that he did not have a valid passport on which he could have traveled to Spain; he claimed he had not left the United States in ten years. When the FBI showed the Spanish police the match between the latent print from the bag and Mayfield's prints, the Spanish police expressed grave doubts. The FBI refused to back down, even declining the request of the Spanish police to come to Madrid and examine the original print. Only when the Spanish authorities matched the print with an Algerian man living in Spain did the FBI admit its mistake. The Bureau issued an apology to Mayfield -- an action almost unprecedented in the history of the FBI -- and later paid him millions of dollars in damages in an out-of-court settlement.

"The extraordinary apology and the payment of damages may help to rec­tify the injustice done to Mayfield and his family. But for our purposes, what happened after the FBI admitted its mistakes and asked the court to release Mayfield shows us something perhaps more important. The Mayfield disas­ter occurred because, among other things, the verification of the original FBI match of Mayfield's print -- a procedure performed by three well-regarded fingerprint experts -- ignored one of the most basic principles of scientific testing: the verification was not a 'blind' test. The three verifying examin­ers knew that an identification had already been made in the case, and they were simply being asked to confirm it. No scientific investigation or basic research in any other field -- a test of the effectiveness of a new over-the-coun­ter medicine, for example -- would ever use a nonblind testing procedure; yet nonblind verification is still routine in fingerprint identification. Further, the FBI conducted proficiency testing of all of the examiners involved in the Mayfield case -- but only after revelation of the errors, not before. At the time of Brandon Mayfield's arrest, the FBI did no regular proficiency testing of its examiners to determine their competence, even though such testing routinely occurs in almost any commercial laboratory using quality-control procedures. Further, and perhaps most shocking of all, the fingerprint com­parison in the Mayfield case relied not on rigorously researched data and a comparison made under a well-accepted set of protocols and standards, but on the unregulated interpretations of the examiners.

"Yet, confronted by an undeniable, publicly embarrassing error that high­lighted the crying need for fingerprint analysts to adopt standard practices used in every scientific discipline, the experts refused to yield. Their answer was resistance and denial: resistance to change, and denial of the existence of a problem. Months after the humiliating exposure of the Mayfield deba­cle, some of those involved continued to insist that the matching of prints to identify unknown perpetrators could not produce mistakes -- ever. ...

"As an institution, the FBI did no better at accepting its error and changing its practices. ... As these words are written, more than six years after a mistaken fingerprint match almost sent Brandon Mayfield to prison for the rest of his life, the FBI laboratory's fingerprint identification division does not use standard blind testing in every case. The laboratory widely considered to have the best fin­gerprint identification operation in the country continues to resist change and remains in denial, and has refused to move toward practices and safe­guards that the scientific world has long considered standard."


David A. Harris


Failed Evidence




Copyright 2012 by New York University


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