forensics lab

(photo caption: Dr. Max Houck, CFL Director, with Christy Aldridge)

Ever since I first saw it, I was dying to go inside and explore; the Consolidated Forensic Laboratory (CFL), located at the corner of 4th and E streets just three short blocks away from my home in Southwest. Not only does the building look magnificent with its glass construction, but I have always been fascinated by forensic science and its vital use to solve crimes. I was so excited when the personnel here happily invited The Southwester in for a behind-the-scenes tour.

After passing through a metal detector and a quick ID check, I was greeted by Keith St. Clair, the public information officer for the Department of Forensic Services. After I explained a little bit more about the paper, Keith gave me a quick background about himself. He noted that he has 25 years of journalism experience, the most recent of which as the editor of the Washington Examiner – I was in over my head, to say the least. He escorted me through additional levels of security and straight to the office of the director himself, Dr. Max Houck.

As the three of us sat together, Dr. Houck told me more about the lab. The Department of Forensics Services falls under the Department of Public Safety and Justice and is completely independent of the Metropolitan Police Department. The DC government finalized the plan for this lab in 2006 during Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration. Before this, DC was sending much of its criminal evidence to the FBI for testing, where it took very little priority. Director Houck explained that not only do the scientists at this lab process criminal evidence – including fingerprints, firearms, and DNA – but they also perform testing related to bioterrorism and infectious diseases (the only lab with the ability to do so between Richmond and Baltimore). Fun fact: they even tested President Obama’s 2012 inaugural ball meal for potential threats. The lab houses the ability to do each of these things, all while maintaining a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating.

After our chat, Dr. Houck graciously offered to personally escort me through the facility. As we walked through the industrial-style halls, we passed by different laboratories with various labels. One stuck out to me in particular.

“Newborn Testing?” I said. “Don’t tell me you guys bring infants here for testing!” Director Houck explained that was not exactly right. This specific lab is used for testing blood samples from each baby born in the District (about 14,000 a year) for certain diseases as a matter of public health. As we continued down the hallways, I noticed other labs including fingerprint analysis, DNA testing, and the digital evidence unit. Dr. Houck explained that that is a brand new unit, which currently only analyzes mobile phones. The CFL hopes to advance this type of testing in the future.

Other aspects of the CFL, which I was not able to see, include a firing range, complete with a bullet recovery water tank used to obtain unharmed bullets for examination; a bank vault, used to store certain items that pass through the lab and accessed only via retinal scan; and a garage, which can house up to 12 vehicles at a time for further investigation.

Many people believe that this building is nothing but a giant morgue. I hope that after reading this article, the Southwest community understands that this laboratory is here to protect the safety of citizens in the District and the surrounding areas.

By: Christy Aldridge

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