FOREST PARK, Ga. — Whether by standard mail truck or full-blown big rig, evidence from around the world continuously flows into the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Forest Park.
USACIL, the Department of Defense’s only full-service forensic laboratory, provides criminal investigators from every military branch with 24 forensic services ranging from DNA testing to latent print and trace evidence analysis.
“We, in forensic science, play a critical role in the criminal investigation,” said Debra Glidewell, USACIL assistant director. “The scientific analysis could be the piece of the puzzle that helps unravel the mystery of what happened.”
The lab, which falls under the Department of the Army, Criminal Investigation Division, constantly strives to continuously improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Before packages arrive, a pre-submission screening takes place where criminal investigators contact the lab to determine what evidence they can test. This screening process prioritizes the evidence that is tested, which allows technicians in various disciplines to focus their efforts in key areas.
When the packages finally arrive, technicians use a parallel process to intake evidence. That allows the techs to take DNA samples, trace evidence, drug samples and latent prints before sending that evidence to each branch to work on simultaneously.
This process contrasts with the previous sequential system that passed evidence from one branch to the next. The improvement has cut turnaround times for evidence analysis from 180 days to less than 60 days in most cases.
“Depending on how long that turnaround time is, it can negatively impact a case,” Glidewell explained. “Our goal is to always be timely enough in our quality forensic results to be impactful in an open investigation.”
The lab also faces a challenge with informing criminal investigators of the robust capabilities they provide. They include fire-arms examination, digital evidence collection and analysis, drug chemistry, Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) databasing and indexing search. They’re tackling this issue head on by hosting a laboratory training course several times a year.
During the course, agents learn about each forensic discipline, their capabilities, what to look for at crime scenes, and how to collect and submit evidence to the lab. USACIL also conducts monthly forensic lab talks to get updated information to agents out in the field.
When the scientists aren’t in the lab, they're usually traveling around the world providing expert testimony in court cases. The traveling and testifying under extreme pressure can take a toll on the scientists. That is why USACIL constantly looks at ways to care for its employees’ mental, physical and emotional well-being.
“Taking care of people is not a sound bite, it’s about making sure that these folks can be on the bench with their head in the game getting those quality forensic results out the door that impact our criminal investigations,” Glidewell explained.
As part of the Army Criminal Investigation Division’s ongoing transformation from a military command into an independent civilian-led federal law enforcement organization, the lab added 14 scientists that helped make a direct impact on turnaround times in cases.
As the demand for the lab’s services increase, USACIL continually strives to provide world-class analysis that hopefully leads to justice through science.
“We are the voice of the evidence,” Glidewell said. “Whether they’re a victim of a crime or a person of interest in a crime, all of our military members deserve quality forensic science to impact their investigation.”