This is the first in a three-part series on lab accreditation, analyst certification, and ISO-compliant lab procedures by Ryan Niland.
Understanding the distinctions between lab accreditation and analyst certification can be important when critically examining forensic analyses. Although both processes relate to quality assurance for forensic analysis, the term accreditation generally applies to laboratories as a whole, while certification applies to individual analysts and technicians.
Accreditation refers to a recognition process for laboratories that meet certain standards for management, operations, equipment, and security. Four major accrediting bodies offer accreditation programs for forensic labs in the United States (ASCLD/LAB, FQS, A2LA, and ABFT – we’ll explain more about these organizations in Part 2), and each body has its own requirements. Lab accreditation is generally a voluntary process, but nine states (including North Carolina) now require their labs to achieve some forms of accreditation. Although the accreditation process is intended to promote standardization and quality control, recent scandals at crime labs in North Carolina, San Francisco, and elsewhere have shown that lab accreditation does not always ensure sound science.
Certification refers to a credentialing process for individual analysts and technicians who meet certain standards for education, training, and experience. Innumerable organizations offer certification for forensic analysts in fields ranging from toxicology to forensic art. Each certifying agency has its own requirements for education, training, and experience, and while some certification programs are rigorous, others can be little more than diploma mills. For example, one organization offers certification as a “forensic consultant” to anyone who watches a 90-minute video and passes a short, multiple-choice test. The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) monitors the certification process for many of these organizations. A good starting point for determining whether a forensic certification is of merit is to determine whether the certification is offered by an FSAB-accredited organization. More information about the certifications held by NC State Crime Laboratory analysts is available here.
Although most lab accreditation programs do not require that analysts be certified, the FBI’s Quality Assurance Standards (QAS) do require some forms of certification for DNA analysts at labs that participate in the CODIS national DNA database.
Part 2 of this series will explain how a lab becomes accredited and some potential shortcomings in that process.