Sources of Pressure for the Forensic Scientist

Forensic scientists are subject to pressures from four distinct sources (Lucas, 2014):

  • 1. The police who are usually their clients
  • 2. The adversary system, which will evaluate their data
  • 3. The science on which data are based
  • 4. Personal sense of ethics and morals

Law enforcement creates challenges for the forensic scientist in a variety of ways. The first factor is the obligation to follow the law. Both groups are required ethically to preserve the integrity of the investigation and of the agency; however, law enforcement has the goals to protect, serve, and get the bad guy, whereas the scientists’ goal is to conduct tests, to interpret results, and to explain them in reports. Next, law enforcement has no obligation to remain impartial or to disclose all information, whereas the scientists’ role is to remain unbiased and to provide all information. Officers may not collect all relevant physical evidence at a crime scene due to lack of training, lack of time, lack of knowledge regarding proper procedures, or intentionally (Lucas, 1989). These factors reflect the expectations of law enforcement compared with those of forensic scientists.

Based on the differences in cultures, do forensic scientists have an ethical obligation toward the actions of law enforcement? No, forensic scientists are not responsible for police practices. However, it is in scientists’ best interest to familiarize themselves with the common differences between cultures. Police learn the ethics of law enforcement in one of two ways: in a l ow-pressure environment such as the police academy or under pressure while on the job. There are pros and cons for each of these methods; police need to find a balance between the two extremes. When a person is free from pressure, objectivity and open-mindedness are more likely to occur; however, this does not accurately portray the working conditions of law enforcement officers.

One of the first sources of on-the-job pressure for new officers begins with training. After the police academy, much of the training occurs through socialization on the job. Such informal training encourages rookies to adopt and adapt to the rules, values, and attitudes of the agency or their mentors. Socialization creates situations where questions posed by rookies regarding proper procedures could receive responses such as “That is the way it has always been done.” These examples are not limited to police rookies, as they may also apply to new forensic scientists or anyone else in a trainee-type position. The bottomline is that police are an essential part of the criminal justice system. Society relies on police to act ethically, though they may or may not feel an ethical responsibility toward the scientists with whom they work. For forensic professionals to maintain ethical in their practice, they should stay current in new policies and procedures, insist on acquiring appropriate samples, reject improper requests, and report suspected negligence. Conclusions drawn by the forensic examiner in the laboratory should be based on the scientific evidence and not on the information provided by officers’ field investigations. An example of how the cultures of law enforcement and forensic science vary is that it is acceptable for a law enforcement officer to act on the information received from another officer; however, it is unethical for a scientist to arrive at a conclusion in the absence of proper evidence or data (Lucas, 2014). Although the law enforcement profession adds pressure to forensic scientists, officers also have a great deal of pressure. Such pressures are easier to handle when each side has a basic understanding of the differing professional cultures and common perspectives of the fields involved.

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