The Different Types of Crime Labs and How They Work

by | Oct 23, 2019

You’ve most certainly heard of a crime lab before, but did you know that they’re not all the same? Crime labs perform a variety of services and serve different types of jurisdictions, and certain forensic examinations are performed in specialized facilities.

Agencies send their evidence to specific labs based on jurisdiction or pay to send it to a private lab if their local laboratory doesn’t provide a specific service.

This post discusses the different types of crime labs, how they’re set up, what types of analyses are performed, and helpful hints on how to describe crime labs in your books.

Typical Crime Labs

A typical crime lab is usually associated with a law enforcement agency, medical examiner, or coroner at the city, county, state, regional, or federal level. Whether a jurisdiction has a crime lab largely depends on funding and population. Crime labs are very expensive to set up and maintain (we’re talking millions of dollars). A small town with low crime will not have forensic lab facilities. The low crime rate does not justify the expense. A large city with a lot of crime probably would.

City labs serve the police department they’re affiliated with. Typically, only one law enforcement agency submits cases (along with district/county attorneys). A city lab might be a full-service lab, or it may only offer a handful of services. Here on Maui, the police department crime lab offers fingerprint, digital forensics, drug analysis, and firearms function services (in addition to crime scene). Cases needing DNA and other forensic examinations are sent to other labs for testing.

A county lab receives cases from all cities/towns in that county that don’t have their own lab, as well as the county itself (i.e., cases that are outside city limits but still in that county). County labs are typically affiliated with sheriff’s departments.

A regional crime lab covers a specific region of a state consisting of multiple counties and serves the agencies within that area. An example of a regional crime lab is the Northern Colorado Regional Crime Laboratory.

A state lab system provides services to agencies within a state that do not have their own laboratory services. A state might have just one lab for the entire state, similar to my previous employer, or they might have an entire system of labs. Not all labs within the system are full-service labs.

An example of a multi-lab state system is the Washington State Patrol, which has seven regional labs: Seattle (10), Spokane (10), Tacoma (10), Marysville (7), Vancouver (6), Kennewick (3), and Olympia (2). However, the labs do not provide the same services. The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of services provided in each lab.

An example of a single-lab system is the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, which has one crime lab that serves the entire state (in Cheyenne).

Federal labs serve both federal and local agencies. The FBI forensic laboratory performs a variety of laboratory services.

Research Labs and Private Specialty Labs

You’ve probably heard about new and exciting scientific methods in the field of forensic science, such as genetic genealogy, forensic phenotyping, and new hair techniques.

These methods can provide helpful information in criminal investigations; however, they’re not performed at traditional crime labs. When you hear about a study that describes a brand new forensic method, that work was probably performed in a research lab. If you hear about a new type of testing that’s actually being used on cases, it’s most likely from a specialized lab. An agency might send out evidence when typical forensic analyses are either not possible or did not yield useful results or if the agency needs a specialized service.

Most crime labs affiliated with a law enforcement agency provide their services at no cost to the agency. If the defense wants testing, they have to send the evidence to a private laboratory and pay fees. Specialized services also incur fees.

In my time as a forensic DNA analyst, I often had to inform agencies of other options when the DNA results were negative. I would find hairs, but the root wasn’t suitable for nuclear DNA testing. Mitochondrial DNA is an option for these types of cases. For more information about hairs and how to use them in your book, click here.

The following is a list of services that are commonly found in traditional crime labs:

  • Biology/DNA (including CODIS)
  • Explosives
  • Fire debris
  • Trace evidence
  • Firearms/toolmarks
  • Latent prints
  • Toxicology (including blood alcohol)
  • Controlled substances
  • Document examinations
  • Digital forensics

The following is a list of services that are typically performed in specialized laboratories or by non-crime lab experts:

  • Forensic entomology
  • Facial reconstruction
  • Paternity
  • Forensic pathology
  • Forensic dentistry
  • Animal/wildlife forensics
  • Mitochondrial DNA
  • Forensic microbiology
  • Forensic genealogy
  • Forensic phenotyping

How to Use this Knowledge When Writing Your Book

Here’s a helpful list of items to remember when you’re trying to figure out crime lab and agency logistics/jurisdictions in your book:

Perform research to learn more about the crime lab affiliated with the agency in your book. The agency website should provide information about its forensic services and the agencies that it serves. Suggested search terms are “crime lab” and “[agency name].” If you don’t see a page for the crime lab or forensic services, you can look for the contact information for the lab director. You can send a quick email and ask what services they offer. Please keep in mind that lab directors are very busy, and it may take them some time to get back to you.

If you’re referring to a real crime lab in your book, make sure you look up the name, especially if it’s a state agency. It’s one of the items I always make sure to check when I edit or beta read crime fiction books. State law enforcement agencies have a wide variety of names. Some examples include the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Illinois State Police, the Nebraska State Patrol, and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation.

If you’re using a fictional town, you can model the crime lab after a real agency that is similar to your book.

Small town agencies usually don’t have a crime lab and will send their evidence to a county, regional, or state lab.

Small towns often receive assistance in processing crime scenes from larger agencies within the state, especially for complicated violent crimes, such as homicides, assaults, and sexual assaults. Bigger agencies usually have more equipment, resources, and experience with violent crimes.

Helpful Links:

Bode Technology (a private DNA testing laboratory that charges fees for their services)

Mitotyping Technologies (provides mitochondrial DNA testing)

Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL; performs DNA testing for the military)

University of North Texas Health Science Center for Identification (provides multiple services, including missing persons)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory (provides animal forensics services)

 

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