COMPARING BULLETS fired from seized guns with bullets found at crime scenes is just one of the many tasks performed at forensic laboratories, which also analyze drugs and trace evidence. Image: JOHN FRASER
I admit it: I'm a Law & Order fan. I love watching television show detectives Lennie Briscoe and Ed Green trade wisecracks as they slip the cuffs on another homicide suspect. But, like millions of other fans, I've sometimes wondered how realistic the show is. In particular, I was skeptical of that stock scene (it occurs in nearly every episode) in which the geeky technician in the police laboratory uncovers a piece of evidence that blows the case wide open. Come on, I thought, how often does that actually happen? And are police labs really that technologically sophisticated? I felt compelled to see for myself, so I arranged a visit to the New York City Police Department's forensic laboratory, the real-life counterpart of the lab on Law & Order.
The police lab is located in an unglamorous building in the borough of Queens. Much of the work done there is also unglamorous: far more drug cases than homicides. According to Lieutenant Paul Scardino, commanding officer of the lab's controlled substances analysis section, seized drugs from about 200,000 cases are delivered to the lab every year. The contraband ranges from garbage bags full of uprooted marijuana plants to glassine envelopes packed with heroin. Top priority goes to analyzing heroin, cocaine and other felony drugs; to bring an indictment under New York State law, the lab has only five business days to identify a suspected sample and measure its purity, which reveals the weight of the drug. (The severity of the charge depends on the weight.)
This article was originally published with the title Science for Cops.