Suppose terrorists mount coordinated attacks across the United States and abroad, intended to strike many targets at once. Or suppose there was a major earthquake or hurricane. Historically, the FBI, FEMA, and other Federal agencies provide assistance to local agencies in the aftermath of disasters. But what would happen if federal response resources were stretched thin and local and state jurisdictions were left on their own?
When it comes to identifying the perpetrators of terrorist acts, or victims of a major incident, what is the role of state and local crime labs? Local and state forensic science facilities could supply thousands of trained scientists throughout the United States to assist in such incidents? Yet, local forensic labs have largely been bypassed as a resource. The result is that few state or local crime labs are fully prepared to help out after a major incident.
Local and State crime labs generally lack the capacity or training to handle large-scale incidents such as terrorism or natural disasters. Nonetheless in such scenarios, local labs would play a role whether they are fully prepared or not. Public safety personnel must be involved at all levels with pre- and post major incident events. State and local forensic science personnel may be involved either as first responders or immediately following the first responders in a support capacity. They could be involved at the scene and in the laboratory as examiners of physical evidence through DNA testing, latent fingerprint examination, handwriting examination, and so on.
Federal agencies seem unclear on what might be an appropriate role for state and local forensic science laboratories in major incidents in which they are involved. There have there been only limited attempts to prepare local forensic practitioners for this assignment.
What steps might be taken to remedy the present situation? The Department of Health and Human Services has brought state and local public health labs together under a “laboratory response network.” An appropriate federal agency could bring together state and local forensic science providers along with other stakeholders to define a role for forensic science laboratories and begin planning how to use these resources.