Houston Forensic Science Center: Past, Present, and Future

The Houston Police Department (HPD) had recurring problems with its forensic divisions. At one point, the issues were so severe the department’s DNA operation was shut down and had to be rebuilt. In the latent print area, the backlog was so significant the City of Houston signed a multimillion-dollar contract with an external agency to complete the work. Despite making progress in its forensic operations, HPD was unable to shake the poor reputation associated with its crime lab. Former Mayor Annise Parker decided in 2011 the best way to resolve the problems and help the public regain trust in the city’s forensic operations would be to remove those services from the police department. After the National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 2009 calling for forensic laboratories to be independent of law enforcement, Mayor Parker moved Houston’s crime lab in this direction. The Houston Forensic Science Center, a local government corporation overseen by a nine-member Board of Directors, assumed responsibility for and control of nearly all the city’s forensic operations on April 3, 2014.

The HPD’s Crime Lab provided forensic services in biology/DNA, toxicology, controlled substances and firearms.

Yes. The Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) and polygraph services had been part of HPD’s Identification Division. HPD retains control of CAFIS (City AFIS), though HFSC does have access to national, state and local AFIS databases. The polygraph unit remains part of HPD as an investigative tool.

The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences includes the medical examiner’s office and its related services. Both the county institute and HFSC have divisions that handle biology/DNA, controlled substances, trace evidence, toxicology and firearms. HFSC also operates in the following areas: digital forensics, forensic audio/video, latent prints and a crime scene unit. Only the county offers the services of a medical examiner’s office and its related duties.

Accreditation by a neutral, qualified third party is essential to a crime lab's credibility. As the National Academy of Sciences has noted, "Oversight must come from outside the participating [crime] laboratory to ensure that standards are not self-serving and superficial and to remove the option of taking shortcuts." The International Standards Organization (ISO) has established guidelines for the forensic sciences. HFSC has achieved ISO accreditation in six disciplines: controlled substances, toxicology, forensic biology, firearms, trace and latent prints. Those sections met the international standard of ISO/IEC 17025:2005 and FBI Quality Assurance Standards applicable to forensic laboratories.  ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB) awarded the accreditation. ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board is jointly owned by the nonprofit American National Standards Institute and the American Society for Quality. ANAB has been accrediting forensic laboratories at the ISO/IEC 17025 level longer than any other U.S. organization.

Mayor Parker, the Houston City Council and HPD made eliminating a backlog of 6,663 rape kits dating back to the 1980s a top priority. Significant progress had been made prior to the management transition. In February 2015, HFSC announced it had tested and reviewed all backlogged kits. The project led to more than 850 hits in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, and some cases have already been adjudicated. Some of the defendants have been sentenced to decades in prison.

HFSC currently receives the bulk of its funds from the City of Houston. The Center also has fee-for-service contracts with some agencies outside the city. HPD eventually will be one of many law enforcement agencies purchasing HFSC’s forensic services. Although the City of Houston is funding startup costs, the goal is for HFSC to become financially self-sustaining.

On April 3, 2014, HFSC assumed control of HPD’s forensic operations located at 1200 Travis, the police department’s headquarters. The current facility has been retrofitted to ensure HFSC laboratories, administrative areas and other sections cannot be accessed by those not working for the Center. But the current facility is inadequate and must be replaced. HFSC has recently leased additional office space at 1301 Fannin Street, a downtown building within walking distance of 1200 Travis. A few forensic disciplines and several administrative departments have moved into that space. A client services office for evidence drop-off and other “front door” services is located in Suite 170 in the Fannin Street building, which is now HFSC’s corporate headquarters. HFSC’s long-term goals include moving into a facility large enough to house all its operations.

Evidence collection is the beginning of the forensic process, and proper collection is crucial. HFSC is working toward accreditation of its Crime Scene Unit.

Independence and Governance

Some management offices and all wet-lab operations are located in HPD’s downtown headquarters. Although the two agencies share a building, they do not share space. The Interlocal Agreement between the City of Houston and HFSC gives the Center “exclusive … control of its facilities in all circumstances except those presenting a serious and immediate threat to human safety, in which case authorized employees of the city may enter … for the sole purpose of addressing the said threat.” To ensure that only HFSC staff and guests can enter areas controlled by the Center, HFSC has installed an electronic security system separate from HPD’s own security setup. HFSC can track who enters areas under its control at any time. Personnel who leave HFSC’s employment must return all keys and badges immediately. Locks, combinations and codes are changed when necessary.

HFSC is independent from law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, elected officials and citizen groups, any of which could have an incentive to attempt to influence the scientific analysis of evidence. An important HFSC goal is to build public trust in the objectivity of evidence presented in criminal proceedings. A juror who believes evidence has been externally influenced may be tempted to disregard scientific findings in favor of personal perceptions. In addition, as an independent corporation, HFSC is able to articulate its financial needs. Under HPD, forensic operations had to compete for funds that were part of the police department’s budget. HFSC is now also able to seek external revenue and financial support.

Texas law states that a “local government corporation may be created to aid and to act on behalf of one or more local governments to accomplish any governmental purpose." A local government corporation is an independent, nonprofit business entity with its own directors, officers and employees. The Houston City Council decided this structure would insulate the Center from any inappropriate influence by police, prosecutors, elected officials or special interest groups. In an effort to minimize political influence, the council approved articles of incorporation that prohibit the removal of a member of the board of directors before the end of a three-year term unless the person has engaged in intentional, unlawful behavior directly related to official duties.

Cost and Efficiency

Without credible evidence, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office will not accept charges and criminal suspects will be released. Timely and accurate evidence analysis protects the community. A suspect is innocent until proven guilty and has a right to objective evidence to try to prove that innocence. Good science can also prevent wrongful convictions, when an innocent person is put in jail and the actual perpetrator remains free.

DPS labs do have a good reputation, and HPD uses those services on occasion. HFSC also provides timely and quality analysis to HPD and the other agencies it supports.

Having more than one resource for forensic services offers significant advantages, including being able to process more evidence and the availability of alternate facilities to minimize the impact of equipment failures, especially during natural disasters or other major incidents. Many large U.S. cities, including Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Baltimore, New York and St. Louis, have multiple crime laboratories.

A merger of the laboratories must be carefully examined before it could be pursued. It remains unclear whether any potential savings would outweigh the risks of such a venture, including the loss of HFSC’s independent management structure and the possibility of distraction from the lab’s core duties. HFSC’s president and CEO and Harris County’s chief medical examiner have worked together on past projects and the organizations have a great deal of respect for one another. The two entities continue to seek opportunities to collaborate and coordinate.

Employment and Internships

Yes. The former HPD divisions now managed by HFSC employed police officers and civilians. HFSC is currently "borrowing" many of these employees through a 2014 agreement between the city and HFSC. The arrangement gives HFSC oversight of those workers, but they continue to receive compensation and benefits from the city. HFSC is also adding staff as it expands. New employees, including most of the Center’s executive staff, are direct hires who receive their compensation and benefits from HFSC. Employees who retire, resign or are terminated may be replaced by either new HFSC hires or by City of Houston civilians or police officers.

As a growing corporation, HFSC is seeking a variety of highly qualified scientists and business professionals. More openings are expected as HFSC enhances and expands its services. To provide exceptional services to the community requires talented employees with education, experience and professional credentials. HFSC knows that to recruit and retain the very best, it must offer competitive salaries and benefits. Qualified applicants can expect a base salary at or above the market average and a strong benefits package, with annual pay increases based on job performance.

Visit the center’s Jobs page to review current openings and the necessary qualifications.

Yes. Details about the program and the necessary qualifications can be found on the website under Jobs. In addition, HFSC has an internship partnership with Sam Houston State University’s forensic program. As HFSC grows, additional university and college partnerships may be available.

Contacts

Business Hours

  • Monday-Friday: 7am to 4:30pm

Our Mission

To receive, analyze and preserve physical and digital evidence while adhering to the highest standards of quality, objectivity and ethics.

Our Objectives

HFSC has four objectives that support its overall mission.

  • To provide quality analytical, comparative and digital examinations.
  • To meet or exceed all standards necessary to maintain international accreditation.
  • To monitor and ensure the timely generation of accurate reports.
  • To enhance HFSC’s scientific and technical capabilities.