Americas crime labs have long been hailed for whiz-bang technology, the kind showcased weekly in the glut ofCSItelevision shows that have taken over prime time.

But crime scene investigation in the real world is a business, and, like any other business, is propelled by bottom-line motivations of productivity, budgets and turnaround times concerning the processing of evidence.

Which is why West Virginia Universitys Forensic Science Initiative is teaming with WVU s Bureau of Business and Economic Research and College of Business and Economics to launch an efficiency investigation of the industry.

And within that industry, where efficiency measurements might vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, or crime lab to crime lab, WVU wants to literally write the bookby drafting a universal treatise of productivity standards and practices to govern any investigation, anywhere.

The College of B&E-based Center for Executive Education is also contributing on two high-profile projects to add to the mission:

  • The first is a collaboration with a national author for a textbook on business writing for the crime lab;
  • The second is an accelerated MBA program on the business side of sleuthing thats being developed in concert with the California Association of Crime Laboratory Directors.

Such a mission could be successful because WVU is involved, said Initiative director Max Houck, a former FBI forensic investigator who helped identify Pentagon victims of Sept. 11 and the 1995 Branch Davidian standoff in Texas.

But that doesnt mean its necessarily going to be easy, he said.

That quickly becomes apparent, Houck said, when one looks at the number of cases processed by American crime labs as opposed to their counterparts in Europe.

It gets a little complicated,he said,because when you look at case numbers you arent just looking at science. Youre also looking at economics, and management and law enforcement. And thats at the very least.

Houck explained those numbers that made themselves known during a recent gathering in San Francisco sponsored by WVU and the Initiative that brought together investigators, academics and crime lab directors from across the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia.

A scientist in a European crime lab, for example, will work three drug cases, one fingerprint case, or two DNA analysis cases a day, Houck said. The workload is generally the same across the water, with Americans handling the same daily numbers of drug and fingerprint cases.

But here, Houck said, the DNA delivers a different story.

American scientists might only complete one DNA case a weekwhich, on the surface, would deem the European labs twice as efficient over those in the States. But,

like those TV crimes that are tidily solved before the last commercial, whats on the surface, Houck said, doesnt show the whole story.

Theres a big factor called theCSI Effect,for one thing, which owes itself to the popularity of those aforementioned dramas depicted on the screens in our living rooms.

Forensic science is now a pop culture commodity which means more peoplepeople who get called to jury dutyknow about its techniques.

So do prosecutors and defense attorneys.

One director of a European lab told the San Francisco audience that while his facility might handle around 17,000 cases a year, only about 80 or so of thoseor one in 212generally go to trial.

Courtrooms in the States arent as static.

Here at home, Houck said, an average forensic scientist can count on testifying at 12 to 15 cases a year, or even more. And briefcases and boarding passes, he said, cut into bench work.

If theres a bottom-line to those numbers, thats it,Houck said.First, theres the travel time. Then theres the waiting, once you get to the venue. There are the court delays that you just know are going to happen in any big case. That kills your productivity in the lab.

The nature of the crime, Houck said, also puts its fingerprints on the doorknob of the police work that follows.

It all comes down to what investigators might actually count as a case,Houck said.Processing a three-item sexual assault case is naturally going to take less time than going 20 pieces of evidence in a homicide. Typically, European cases are smaller, and more clear-cut.

How forensic labs do business has never been more important, Houck said.

Today, were at the height of public awareness about this fascinating profession,Houck said.

But that means were also facing challenges of resources, payrolls, processes and management,he said.Weve always adhered to quality and accuracy issues, but now were also looking at the publics trust, turnaround issues and funding issues. If you can pardon a Sherlock Holmes analogy, the magnifying glass is on us.

One way to weather the scrutiny, Houck said, is by getting in front of itwhich is exactly what WVU is doing. Given the ever-changing particulars in any crime investigation, Houck said, a few universal parameters in the lab can only help.

People are aware of our industry (forensic science),Houck said,but there arent a lot of people out there actually analyzing it. What we want to do is enhance our laboratories with proven business practices.

Dr. Tom Witt, who directs WVU s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, sees the whole thing as common sense in an industry that is growing and growing.

You can talk about the �€~health care industryand the �€~coal industry,Witt said,but you dont hear anything about the �€~forensic industry.Well, it needs to be defined, too, given the importance it has to society and the economy. And thats what were working on.

The Forensic Science Initiative of West Virginia University provides research and resources to forensic laboratories. Its funded through the National Institute of Justice with legislative support by U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. The Initiative also operates in tandem with the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.

The forensic major was created in 1997as part of a WVU partnership with the FBI . Today, nearly 500 students (there were just four that first year) major in the program thats been featured in publications from The Chronicle of Higher Education to Rolling Stone, and on cable televisions E! Entertainment network.

Students practice the craft in three specially outfittedCrime Scenehouses and a forensic garage, where they work through scenarios ranging from domestic disputes to drive-by shootings.

WVU s forensic program is one just 11 in the country to be fully accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.