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Bill would reduce mayoral control of troubled D.C. crime lab

Council member Charles Allen introduced legislation to turn the Department of Forensic Sciences into an independent agency

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Members of the D.C. Council introduced legislation Thursday to turn the city’s troubled forensics arm into an independent agency, a move that would reduce the mayor’s control of the department tasked with analyzing crime scene evidence as violence surges in the District.

The bill, introduced by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, would shift oversight authority of the Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS) to an independent advisory board and make it harder for the mayor to fire the agency director.

The legislation comes more than a year after the department lost accreditation amid reports of errors and mismanagement. Since then, the city has outsourced its crime scene and evidence analysis to federal and private labs and launched a sweeping review of criminal convictions dating back a decade.

Allen said the bill is a response to poor executive oversight that led the department to lose accreditation.

“These changes are a direct result of those actions,” he said, “and will help ensure that as we get back the accreditation for DFS, we are in a position to make sure we keep it.”

Nine additional council members, including mayoral candidate Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), signed off on the bill.

The move to give more power to the advisory board, in addition to a host of other changes, came from recommendations laid out by consulting firm SNA International in a scathing review of the agency in December. SNA was hired by the District to assess the crime lab after it lost accreditation.

Susana Castillo, a spokeswoman for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), said in a statement, “The bill includes many of the recommendations from the December 2021 SNA International report commissioned by Mayor Bowser as part of our top to bottom review of the agency, and we will look forward to working with the Council on it.”

The department’s advisory board has been meeting regularly to figure out how to implement the changes outlined by SNA, but there is little indication that the lab is close to reaccreditation.

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) said in a statement that he supports the bill.

“We’re encouraged the Council is taking steps to address the serious and long-standing failures at the Department of Forensic Sciences,” he said. “We look forward to working with the Council and Councilmember Allen to make needed reforms to DFS and restore the integrity of scientific testing and results in the District’s criminal cases.”