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Meet Dr. Peter Stout of Houston Forensic Science Center

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dr. Peter Stout.

This story begins in 2002 before the Houston Forensic Science Center was born. At the time, Houston’s forensic operations were under the Houston Police Department. It was one division in an agency of more than 5,000 people and dozens of different units.

Then, in 2002, a local Houston TV affiliate exposed the crime lab’s problems. “Dry labbing” occurred, meaning people weren’t doing the required scientific analysis to reach a conclusion. The lab was full of unqualified, poorly trained, underpaid employees. Rats had eaten through evidence boxes in the property room. Water dripped from a leaky ceiling onto evidence in the lab. DNA testing had to be suspended. The New York Times called it the worst crime lab in the country.

Houston tackled the issue. Qualified people were hired. Staff underwent intensive training. And, yet, problems persisted.

In 2008, the DNA section again had to be shut down amid a cheating investigation. In 2009, problems in the latent print unit arose.

The city paid multimillion-dollar settlements to wrongfully convicted individuals.

In 2012, Houston’s mayor, Annise Parker, seized on a 2009 National Academy of Sciences recommendation as the solution. Houston’s forensic operations would be made independent of law enforcement and prosecutors.
HFSC’s journey began.

In April 2014, HFSC officially took over management of what had previously been HPD’s Crime Lab, Crime Scene Unit and parts of its Identification Division. The corporation is overseen by a nine-member board of directors appointed by the mayor and confirmed by City Council.

Able to independently make financial, hiring and procurement decisions, HFSC has in just two years achieved international accreditation for seven of eight forensic sections. The Controlled Substances and Firearms Sections eliminated backlogs of thousands of cases and maintain a turnaround time of less than 30 days. A backlog of sexual assault kits has been eliminated and those cases are completed in less than 30 days. The staff has grown from 140 to nearly 200.

This, though, is just the beginning.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
As can be expected when there is significant operational and management change in an organization, the transition from HPD to HFSC has not been smooth sailing. There have been challenges, including opposition from some who would have preferred to keep the city’s forensic operations under law enforcement. HFSC’s staff is also a combination of classified officers, city civilian employees and HFSC direct hires. That has presented challenges as the through groups meld together under one management structure that has a new and different culture. Finally, there have been resource challenges. A lack of resources is in part what caused the original problems in Houston’s crime lab, and in a cash-strapped city getting the resources necessary to recover and prevent similar issues can be difficult. That said, as the independent model proves itself to be efficient and provides high-quality science to stakeholders. Some of these challenges are starting to dissipate.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Houston Forensic Science Center story. Tell us more about the business.
The Houston Forensic Science Center specializes in seven forensic disciplines: Crime Scene, Toxicology, Forensic Biology, Controlled Substances, Latent Prints, Multimedia Evidence and Firearms. HFSC provides forensic results to the City of Houston, namely the Houston Police Department, and other smaller regional agencies. HFSC is unique because of its form of independence. It is the only public forensic institution in the country that is overseen by a nine-member board of directors and has a corporate structure with a CEO and other corporate officers. At this time, we are most proud of the progress we made in eliminating backlogs and improving turnaround times and quality controls.

When HFSC took over management of HPD’s forensic operations it inherited a backlog of more than 12,000 requests and a turnaround time of more than 150 days on average. As of August 18, HFSC had a backlog of just over 3,330 requests in only two disciplines (Forensic Biology and Latent Prints) and an overall average turnaround time across disciplines of 45 days. So while we still have work to do, we believe that we have made a great deal of progress in a short time with a static budget. At the same time, we have introduced blind quality testing into our process meaning analysts in five disciplines (Toxicology, Controlled Substances, Firearms, Forensic Biology and Latent Prints) are unaware whether they are working a real case or a mock case introduced into the system by our Quality Division. These blind quality controls allow HFSC to test its entire process and ensure that the work it is providing stakeholders is of top quality. It allows HFSC to identify errors exactly where they occur as well as ensure our analysts are operating according to protocol. HFSC’s blind quality control program is currently the broadest in the country.

How do you, personally, define success? What’s your criteria, the markers you’re looking out for, etc?
We talk a lot about our goal being the right answer at the right time.  The justice system works when there is a reliable, quality, objective answer available at the time that works for the investigation and adjudication of the case.

 We have targeted having ALL work conducted by the laboratory routinely completed in less than 30 days from the time of request by the submitting agency. There will always be circumstances that lead some cases to exceed this target, so ultimately we need 98 percent of the work completed in less than 30 days. Some work will need to be routinely faster than this.

We want to see constant, demonstrable quality results. We want to not just say we are doing it right, but have the systems in place to demonstrate with statistical significance the error risk and have that risk be acceptably low. So to be able to demonstrate with high confidence (95 percent confidence) an error rate across the whole system that is less than 1 percent.

Lastly, success is being able to do this sustainably and efficiently, and we can demonstrate the cost efficacy and that staffing is stable with low turnover.

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