DC abruptly disbands crime lab’s firearms unit

Months after the District’s troubled crime lab lost its accreditation, the city is moving to essentially disband a key unit of the troubled forensic agency, planning to lay off nearly a dozen staff members of the Firearms Examination Unit.

The city issued a reduction-in-force for all 11 remaining members of the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences’ firearms unit. They were officially informed of the move Wednesday, instructed to clear out their desks and walked out of the building.

Employees will be paid through Oct. 18 but were placed on immediate administrative leave. The employees are represented by the National Association of Government Employees.

DFS Interim Director Anthony Crispino did not meet with any employees or inform them of the agency’s plans ahead of time — or make any broader comments to remaining DFS staff about what appears to be a significant restructuring of the agency.

In an emailed statement to WTOP, Crispino said the department is “fully engaged in efforts to regain its accreditation and bring the laboratory back online for the residents of the District of Columbia. The department followed all required reduction-in-force procedures, to include prior written notification to the labor union pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. A reduction-in-force is not a decision taken lightly, but one that is necessary to ensure a path forward for DC’s independent forensic laboratory.”

A reduction-in-force means the agency is abolishing positions rather than laying off particular staff members, and it usually means the agency has no plans for refilling them. Such reductions are not related to an employee’s job performance.

DFS did not provide a reason for the move to the 11 affected employees. However, lack of work and an agency reorganization or realignment are both reasons a reduction in force can be issued, according to the District Personnel Manual.

“We’re all blindsided,” said one employee who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the personnel matter.

The employee called the sudden plan to lay off the entire unit the “ultimate betrayal” since only a few weeks ago, rank-and-file DFS employees met with members of an outside consulting firm and provided ideas about what changes they would make to reform the agency.

The shake-up at the lab comes after a national accreditation board, in an unprecedented move, suspended and later withdrew the entire crime lab’s accreditation to perform forensic testing amid a widening series of scandals involving lab leadership, including a criminal investigation by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General.

The suspension largely sidelined the ballistics unit as well as other units that analyze DNA, fingerprints and digital evidence. Since April, outside labs have been handling the DFS caseload.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive, which is handling the District’s firearms cases, moved several of its staff members into office space at DFS headquarters last month.

More coverage of DC’s troubled crime lab

The D.C. lab’s troubles came to light last spring, after a team of experts retained by federal prosecutors and the D.C. Office of the Attorney General issued a scathing report alleging senior managers both within the firearms unit and the broader agency concealed conflicting findings and may have pressured employees to alter conclusions after the discovery of a ballistics error in an ongoing murder case.

In May, former agency director Jenifer Smith resigned amid calls for a change in leadership from D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and D.C. Council member Charles Allen.

Over the summer, the lab saw a number of other officials depart, including the former manager of the firearms unit, whose handling of the unit came under scrutiny in the experts’ report.

The agency has been working to repair its damaged credibility, hiring the outside consulting firm, SNA International, to conduct what has been described as a “top-to-bottom” review of the lab’s problems with the goal of regaining accreditation.

This summer, Interim DFS Director Anthony Crispino told members of a science advisory board that advises agency leaders, that the D.C. leaders are now interested in restoring accreditation for individual units of the lab sooner as they deal with “deeper-seated issues” in the Firearms Examination Unit and the Latent Fingerprint Unit.

In any case, the lab is not expected to regain full accreditation until early 2022, he said.

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Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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