Report: Increased training, transparency can improve forensic analysis use for law enforcement

WASHINGTON — Law enforcement agencies around the country use forensic technology like DNA and fingerprint testing and facial recognition algorithms to solve crimes.

Now a new watchdog report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) says increasing training and transparency can better ensure the reliability of the results from these systems and the public’s trust in the outcomes.

The report looks into how law enforcement uses evidence that is collected through forensic technology and then entered into a database using algorithms.

“Law enforcement agencies primarily use three kinds of forensic algorithms in criminal investigations: latent print, facial recognition, and probabilistic genotyping,” the report said. “Each offers strengths over related, conventional forensic methods, but analysts and investigators also face challenges when using them to assist in criminal investigations.”

The report said the challenges can include human error such as bias.

“For latent print and facial recognition, training on cognitive biases could raise awareness and improve objectivity,” the report said.

“There’s always a human in the loop,” said Karen Howard, a Director with GAO. “Human analysts can also introduce bias inadvertently in many cases or it can have errors.”

The report said setting training standards or certification standards for analysts can reduce errors or risks of improper use.

“Setting some minimum standards, a bar which the evidence needs to meet in order for these algorithms to function properly, we found would be a good step to take,” said Howard.

The report also said increasing consistency among all law enforcement agencies could help build public confidence in the systems.

“The bottom line is these systems are reliable when used properly and when the evidence that is put into the system or fed into the system meets minimum quality standards,” said Howard. “So I think if we can have greater transparency about that, about the reliability of the results, about the databases we can use, the public can have greater confidence in the use for law enforcement.”

The report does say it may be difficult to implement the same standards for the systems across all levels of law enforcement agencies because they don’t all have the same resources or funding.