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Report: Wisconsin Crime Labs Face Multitude of Problems

by Ed Lyon

Wisconsin has crime labs in Madison, Milwaukee, and Wausau. The Madison and Milwaukee labs are classified as full service because each is responsible for eight forensic-science fields, including DNA analysis. The Wausau lab covers only four forensic science fields. All three conduct Crime Scene Response (“CSR”) service, similar to what television’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation depicts. 

These labs are beset by problems so severe that Wisconsin’s attorney general commissioned a study of the beleaguered labs by the National Forensic Science Technology Center at Florida International University (“FIU”) at a cost of $43,000. 

FIU’s 24-page audit laid bare a plethora of problems at the three labs, including employee turnover, processing delays, and accepting too much evidence from law enforcement.

In the run-up to the November 2018 election, the issue became a political football between then-Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, and rival Josh Kaul, a Democrat, who won the seat.

Schimel requested $1.6 million for the 2019-2021 budget to hire 14 full-time employees and requested permission to create new pay progressions for lab analysts. Kaul responded that FIU’s report evidences lab mismanagement, and Schimel only became interested in the labs and serious crime fighting as a precursor to the looming election. 

It was revealed that lab funding was in competition with law enforcement agencies for limited funds. The two must vie for monies for such equipment as centrifuges and microscopes versus squad cars and body armor, never-seen-by-the-public items against visible front-line equipment, as well as highly educated lab technicians with advanced degrees or additional police officers. 

Each lab is commonly viewed as a law enforcement extension instead of an independent scientific facility. It is directed by law enforcement personnel instead of having lab managers or a director. This negatively impacts perceptions of the labs’ impartiality. 

The labs operate under a strict command structure. There is little, if any, delegation of authority to lab personnel, requiring many unnecessary procedures to accomplish tasks. In one case, five levels of approval were required to purchase items the approving personnel may not even understand the necessity for, reducing overall operational efficiency. 

Because of these problems mainly caused by law enforcement administration of a supposedly separate entity, the FIU audit recommends the labs become a separate entity apart from law enforcement. The state Department of Justice (“DOJ”) agrees and “has been contemplating” making the crime labs a separate DOJ division for years. The DOJ went on to explain it will require a legislative act to accomplish this, but it’s proposing an administrator position for the labs under its current budget proposal.

A major morale problem stems from entry-level analysts earning more money than senior and advanced personnel. This is because DOJ salaries are not keeping pace with the market positions. This leads to an increased turnover rate, which causes constant in-house training, leading to decreased output. 

Because nearly half of the lab staff are pulling crime-scene response duty, staffing is short. The 14 additional lab positions in a recent budget proposal are primarily targeted to fill CSR positions. 

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Sources: doj.state.wi.us, forensimag.com, nfstc.org

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