T H E
T A I L
Monday, November 12, 2001
Welcome to the fourteenth "Detail," a weekly e-mail newsletter that greets latent print examiners around the globe every Monday morning. The purpose of the Detail is to help keep you informed of the current state of affairs in the latent print community, to provide an avenue to circulate original fingerprint-related articles, and to announce important events as they happen in our field.
This week, Andy Kearns examines the issue of production standards for latent print examiners:
Production Standards for Latent Print Examiners
Andy Kearns, CLPE
I’ve recently become involved in several discussions regarding production standards for latent print examiners. By production standards, I mean requiring an examiner to complete a specified number of cases within a given time frame. I’ve heard several viewpoints on this subject, and I’ve come to a few personal conclusions that I would like to share in this week’s Detail.
Let me first state that I work for an agency that has an “unofficial” standard of 20 cases per month, meaning that while we handle crime scenes, morgue calls, testify in court, collect and process our own evidence, handle all our own paperwork, do our own photography, AFIS entry, comparisons and identifications, verifications and peer reviews, train new examiners, have random staff meetings, etc., we are expected to close 20 cases per month. Oh, and since we’re an ASCLD/LAB accredited lab, you can imagine how our documentation responsibilities have increased in the last three years. Despite all that, I’ve never had a problem meeting our “standard,” yet I still feel it’s unnecessary and even detrimental to have a standard at all, and I’ll explain why.
Latent print work is done, for the most part, by humans. We have AFIS, of course, but that makes up a relatively small part of our day-to-day routine. As humans, the rate at which we can perform certain tasks is variable depending on what is going on around us, how much sleep we’ve gotten, how focused our eyes are, how involved in related projects we are, and how many things other people think up for us to do in addition to our own work. The rate varies from examiner to examiner, and from one day to the next. There is, for each examiner, a maximum, comfortable speed at which he/she can complete accurate work; and even that rate is variable depending on the quality of the prints being compared, number of suspects, etc. So, for any given conscientious examiner, it will take them a fixed amount of time to complete a particular case, and no less.
What happens if you push an examiner beyond his/her comfort level? Mistakes may be made because of the necessary sacrifice of accuracy for speed, and/or more time will be spent worrying about the quota than the latent lift to be compared. Neither of these should appeal to an administrator whose goal is to increase production and keep the agency out of budget draining lawsuits.
What is the real purpose of production standards? To make sure employees work and do not spend too much time “at the water cooler.” The idea is that if you’re playing and not working, you won’t make the standard. Why else would you not make your goal? Consider the wide variety of cases we receive. One month you might get nothing but small lift cases. The next month you might get three homicides and a handful of clandestine drug laboratories. Yet the standard remains the same. For forensic personnel such as drug analysts, who can tell you to the minute how long it will take to perform an analysis on an unknown sample, a fixed standard may make a little more sense. On a discipline that’s variable from start to finish, it’s hardly realistic.
How effective are production standards? Well, how about this hypothetical example. Suppose your standard is 20. Most of the time, you make 20 cases just fine. You work hard, and you crank the idents out with regularity. Sometimes you draw large cases that affect your numbers, but you still do your best to make your goal. Now, suppose the administrators of your agency decide that the backlog isn’t being reduced fast enough, and they change the production standard to 30. Can you work half again as fast, while maintaining the same quality of work? Do you cut corners to get done with a case? Do you spend less time looking at each print in order to finish faster? As an ethical examiner, you probably won’t do anything different. You have to be absolutely accurate, and hurrying won’t make you accurate. You’ll do your job just as you did before, only now you’re stressed out because you know you are going to miss your quota. Now suppose the standard gets cut to 10. Are you going to work slower? Will you spend half your time staring at the ceiling or socializing with the other examiners instead of working? No; an ethical examiner will keep doing exactly what was being done before, cranking out the cases as best they can, only now the standard is insignificant, and there is one less worry in an already stressful occupation.
All this to say that if you’re a typical latent print examiner - ethical, responsible, and a hard worker - the standard is irrelevant to your productivity. Are there examiners out there who spend too much time playing and/or sitting around and not enough time working? Of course. However, a competent supervisor should be able to recognize these employees, document the problems, and take appropriate actions to either correct or dismiss the employee, leaving the rest to do their jobs without a meaningless number hanging over their heads.
Which brings me to my conclusion. I don’t believe a numerical standard applies to such a widely variable discipline. A case will take a certain amount of time to complete, and having a standard will not make that case take less time. Period. If you want maximum productivity, try to motivate your people (positively, not punitively) to stay at the bench and work responsibly, not faster. You have only to read the newspaper to see what happens when a crime lab’s focus becomes a race to close cases, instead of closing cases with optimum competence and quality of work.
Our goals as latent print examiners should always be quality of work, not just the quantity of work. That is not to say that we shouldn’t also try to clear as many cases as we can (while maintaining optimal accuracy), as we should always try to serve the criminal justice community in an efficient and timely manner. I simply feel that examiner productivity should be gauged by supervisory personnel according to the quality and quantity of work completed, not by an arbitrary numerical standard. How many cases does it take to effect a productive latent print examiner? I say there is no valid basis for requiring a pre-determined “minimum” number of cases. So the question becomes does your administration count cases? Or do they truly believe in the qualitative/quantitative approach?
I invite anyone with feelings on one side or the other to join me at the www.clpex.com discussion page with their thoughts.
Be safe, and be accurate.
Senior Criminalist, CLPE
Latent Evidence Unit, HQ
Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation
Thank you, Andy, for getting our brains in gear on this Monday morning!
Do you feel strongly for or against production standards? Perhaps there is another angle you are coming from. Visit the discussion forum and throw out your ideas on this subject.
Next week, we'll play it by ear. We have been running ahead of schedule for articles, and now we are about caught up. If you have an issue you would like to see in the Detail, type it up early this week, and get it to me by Thursday. If I don't receive any submissions, I'll probably type something up on the changing demands on latent print examiner training resulting from more stringent legal standards since Daubert.
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Until next Monday morning, don't work too hard or too little.