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The Conditions for Expert Witnessing Excellence

[Transcript of Episode #39 of The Crime Lab COACH Cast]

April 10, 2023

And a very hearty and enthusiastic good afternoon to everyone in America’s amazing and incredibly valuable forensic science laboratories, John Collins here with you again, recording from Southfield Michigan just about 10 miles northwest of downtown Detroit. 

I have a feeling that today’s episode is going to attract a lot of new listeners so for those of you who are new to the Crime Lab COACH Cast, I a trained and practicing executive trust coach and leadership facilitator specializing in working with people, teams, and organizations in authoritative occupations requiring high levels of expertise and integrity to earn the trust of the public or other consequential stakeholders. And at the top of the list of the many different kinds of clients that we prioritize here, are the forensic laboratory sciences.

Today is Monday April 10, 2023 and I’m delighted that you’ve chosen to join me for what I think is going to be a really interesting topic for us to explore together.

As many of you know from listening to previous episodes of the coach cast, we’ve been spending a lot of time recently discussing the topic of expert witnessing, with a more focused emphasis on the skills needed for practicing forensic scientists to conduct themselves with high levels of effectiveness when testifying in court as expert witnesses.

There is a reason why we are talking about it so much right now.  And that reason is because there has been a lingering AND growing concern about what many forensic laboratory administrators are regarding as a deficit in the ability of forensic laboratory scientists to testify as expert witnesses in criminal proceedings, or any proceeding for that matter, and to actually leave the jury and the officers of the court with the opinion that the witness that they just saw testify was very impressive. When you testify as an expert witness, and when you do so the right way, with the right attitude, and with the right skills, you will walk out of the courtroom having represented yourself, your laboratory, and your entire profession with honor and professionalism.  And when you do that, you will leave the courtroom with the respect and trust of those who heard what you had to say.  And in doing so, you will have fulfilled what is your #1 priority as an expert witness, which is to be of service and utility to the court in its effort to bring the dispute before it to a fair and reliable resolution.

As of my recording today, I want to be transparent about something, which is to acknowledge that I only have a few anecdotal examples that I’ve gathered during my travels over the last few years that point to exact instances where forensic laboratory scientists have been called to court and failed to perform in a way that reflected positively on themselves and their laboratories.  And I’ve heard about these examples directly from laboratory directors and unit supervisors who shared with me what happened.  So I’m confident that this, indeed, is a subject that needs to be addressed, and I want to do my best to address it today, and to tell you what I think is going on and how we can fix it.

Before I do that, I want to make it crystal clear that there are many outstanding, confident, and articulate forensic laboratory scientists all across the United States who do a fantastic job when they testify as expert witnesses in court.  They know how to conduct themselves.  They have a reasonably impressive command of their expertise and of the English language. That have a strong professional presence. They take their responsibilities as expert witnesses seriously. And, perhaps, most importantly, they have enough confidence in themselves to know that they can and will adapt to the unexpected questions and areas of inquiry that invariably emerge during a trial. They are not afraid of not being able to answer a question.  They have what we call cognitive agility, and they are able to hear a question, process it quickly, decide on a response that is appropriate and within the boundaries of their expertise, and then they can put that response into words that are clear and easy to understand. And I’m really proud of those of you out there who are – or have been – ambassadors to the forensic laboratory sciences by functioning with great skill and professionalism in courts of law. I know you’re out there, and we are all very grateful for you.  Keep doing what you’re doing.

But, the challenge we seem to have right now, is that we have some scientists – perhaps, too many scientists – who are failing to launch, to use a phrase from the field of developmental psychology, which is to say that they are not demonstrating the ability to leave the nest – to transition from their scientific, technical responsibilities in the laboratory so that they can rise up to meet the responsibilities placed on them when they walk into a courtroom.  Unlike their more effective colleagues that I described a moment ago, we might see scientists taking the witness stand who appear timid, they don’t carry themselves well, their voices might be inaudible, their speech patterns may be choppy and difficult to follow.  They may not know how to put their expertise and knowledge into words.  Or maybe they don’t have as much expertise and knowledge as they should. And I know from experience that some seem to look and sound as if they don’t even trust themselves, so how the heck is anyone else going to trust them?

These kinds of transitional challenges exist in other fields as well, of course. Medicine is a great example where really competent doctors may have horrible bedside manners, or where an otherwise really competent civil engineer, let’s say, acts cold and aloof during a city planning meeting.  Most authoritative professions that require high levels of expertise, such as forensic science, require these kinds of transitioning capabilities – to be able to function effectively in different kinds of environments having different kinds of technical and social demands.

So, to the extent that the forensic laboratory sciences, which appears to be the case, has a problem with scientists failing to perform effectively in the courtroom, I have some answers to why this is happening and how laboratory administrators can fix it. And it goes beyond simply the recruiting and hiring process, which is critical in the long term, but I think many laboratories feel that they need to make some changes right now.

First, we have to go back in time to the late 1990s and early 2000s when crime laboratories were drowning in evidence. And I remember what that felt like. We just couldn’t keep up with cases coming in the door, and so backlogs were exploding. At that time, many laboratories were still very new to operating within an accreditation framework, and so they hadn’t yet learned to maximize their throughput capacity while also tending to all of the new and unfamiliar demands that accreditation brought with it.  And so we saw the federal government step in, for example, with grant programs that helped laboratories invest in automation and hire personnel to work cases and get the backlogs under control. And in many other instances, laboratories did so with their own dollars, investing in technologies and hiring employees who had the educational credentials to learn these technologies, be trained as forensic laboratory scientists, complete their competency tests, and get to work. So the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century saw, in my judgement, the transition of forensic laboratory science from what always sort of struck me as a rather thoughtful, intuitive, and often innovative enterprise to a robotic, compliant, standardized, and economized one.  And as a result, we developed employees to operate in such an environment. We hired personnel who, in many instances, became robotic, compliant, and efficient. Exactly what we wanted them to be.

And even today, there is such an emphasis right now on standardization, and I certainly understand why that is, but this incessant push toward standardization and the culture of compliance that must accompany it, as a matter of due course, is dumbing down the forensic science workforce.  In an ideal world, you will have creative, engaged, and ambitious scientists innovating in their laboratories, being alert to new opportunities for progress, developing new solutions to new problems in their laboratories, and then convening at professional conferences to share their discoveries.  These are the kinds of flexible, cognitively agile, sharply curious people that go on to become great expert witnesses. They are dynamic, they are adaptable, and they are engaged. But we have to confront reality, which is to say that compliant, well-behaved, I-do-as-I’m told forensic personnel will often not have the agility and alertness to be effective on the witnesses stand when the pressure is on. They won’t be able to impress anyone because they’ve never learned how to be impressive. 

We need innovation and best practices to be emerging from within our laboratories, and we need our laboratories communicating with each other and sharing their ideas.  We’ve gotten to a place in the history of our profession where creativity and critical thinking have become monopolized by a few individuals and few agencies, and it’s killing us.  It’s eliminating the incentive to grow and mature professionally, and it’s taking away what might otherwise be a critically important source of job satisfaction for the kinds of people who tend to have the natural abilities you need to be an impeccable expert witness.  We did this to ourselves, and we’re still doing it, as best I can tell.

So the question is, what kind of human beings do you want becoming forensic laboratory scientists, scientists who will then be called to testify as experts in court? And, by the way, this is a classic leadership dilemma, and a classic HR dilemma. You have to create the conditions in which the kinds of people you want in your organizations are likely to thrive.  And I am absolutely certain our profession has turned into something that now struggles to attract… scale…..the kinds of people who will excel as expert witnesses.  Our profession needs to get some of its soul back.  It needs to debureaucratize and decentralize its innovative engines.  We need to reenergize people in our laboratories and expose them to conditions that necessitate and encourage the development of their skills, abilities, and personal traits so that they can go confidently into a courtroom and ensure that they can meet the demands of the moment. Oh…

….and there’s one other thing – something else that’s become a bit too unwieldy, too oppressive, and even offensive to the kinds of people we need to come into our profession. And I absolutely know this from experience and I confront it almost on a daily basis in my coaching and facilitation work. And that is the impact of police culture on our forensic science laboratories.

The strict command-and-control police cultures under which so many laboratories function today, are becoming increasingly (rather than decreasingly) ill-suited to provide the kind of environment that innovative, thoughtful, and agile scientists need to grow and thrive. And what do strict, rank-and-file, police cultures obsessed with risk-avoidance and threat mitigation value in employees?  COMPLIANCE.  Do what you’re told. Don’t cause trouble. Stay in line. Follow orders. Don’t question authority. Protect the status quo.  COMPLIANCE, COMPLIANCE, COMPLIANCE.

And please don’t misunderstand me, I’ve really tried to avoid advocating for one-size-fits-all solutions such as removing all labs from police agencies.  As I wrote in my book, The New Superior, what I really want is for the profession of uniformed policing to make dramatic changes to its culture – especially those that operate forensic science laboratories.  But if those changes can’t be made, and if a police agency’s culture causes its forensic personnel to exhaust more energy on coping with dysfunction rather than thriving in an environment that rewards personal growth, creative thinking, and critical thinking, then, without a question, a new administrative and budgetary arrangement needs to be made immediately. 

So if you are a laboratory director, laboratory system director, or unit supervisor, what can you do to start turning things around – assuming you feel that this is necessary for your particular laboratory.

Well, there’s five things I’d like to emphasize and have you spend some time thinking about as I certainly will:

  1. Create discussion groups that meet regularly to share, discuss, and challenge new ideas. Get people together to give presentations in-house about possible improvements to policies, methods, or the way things are done. Maybe require that all employees give at least one or two presentations each year about something important to them or ideas they may have that could improve how your laboratory does its business. Get your people talking, thinking, and communicating.
  1. If you are a leader or person of stature or authority in your laboratory, you must model the behaviors of someone who is agile. You have to be willing to share your own ideas and your own thoughts about subjects that are relevant to you and your laboratory.  You have to allow your people to see you struggling with different opportunities and challenges.  If they see you as nothing more than a compliant minion of the upper command, you will only further reinforce compliance as a foundational organizational value.
  1. And, again, this is for you leaders and administrators out there, you MUST invite scrutiny and critical thinking. Ask for it. Genuinely want your people to challenge how things are done and look for ways that your laboratory’s operations can be improved. If you keep asking for your people to challenge the status quo, they will eventually start doing it without being asked, which is precisely when you’ll know that you are now developing people with higher levels of cognitive agility.
  1. Don’t wait for governmental agencies or universities to innovate on your behalf. No one – and I mean NO ONE – has a monopoly on good ideas or the exclusive privilege of determining what good ideas should one day become formalized into a best practice. Get your people thinking, get them wondering, and hire people who are curious about possibilities. These are the people who will become your impeccable expert witnesses.
  1. You can’t moot-court your way out of this problem.  Moot court is nice and it’s a sort of right-of-passage in forensic laboratory culture, but for moot court to work it has to be really realistic and that’s difficult to achieve. In my experience, going and watching really good experts testify is far superior to moot course. Now, by all means, take a look at your moot court practices and how you conduct them, and stick to what you’re doing if you think it’s working.  But what is really going to build the expert-witnessing competencies of your people is their constant exposure to being cognitively challenged and stimulated in a way that forces them to put their expertise into words.

If we want our forensic laboratory scientists to transition effectively into the role of the impeccable expert witness, then we have to create the conditions in which the talents and strengths needed to be an effective expert witness are rewarded, prioritized, and developed.

The kind of forensic science laboratory you choose to be will determine the kinds of employees you choose to send to the witnesses stand to represent your laboratory and the evidence in court.

We need to be very careful and very intentional about the choices we make.

I’ll see you next time.

John M. Collins is an executive trust coach at Critical Victories in Southfield, Michigan. He specializes in supporting clients in authoritative, high-stakes occupations requiring high levels of expertise to earn and retain the trust of the public or other consequential stakeholders, including forensic science, law enforcement, and law practice. John shares some of his unique philosophies and insights on high-stakes leadership in his 2022 book, THE NEW SUPERIOR – A BETTER WAY TO BE THE ONE IN CHARGE (, available in hardcover and audio.

John works with people, teams, and organizations across the United States and oversees. If you are serious about expanding your leadership effectiveness, click below to request a free client strategy call:

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