, chic forensic analysts wear designer clothing in the lab, tracking down killers and rapists using super-high resolution, three-dimensional, holographic fingerprint imaging and DNA analyzing super-computers. The truth of the matter, however, is that work in a forensics lab is not as glamorous "as seen on TV," but equally important to the work of law enforcement officials nationwide.
The NH State Police Forensic Lab does conduct DNA, fingerprint, toxic substance and computer analysis, and yes, it does track down killers and rapists with federally compiled DNA and fingerprint databases, but it also conducts urine and blood drug screening and even service and certify the breathalyzer systems used in every police department in the state.
In fact, of the nearly 40,000 cases processed by the NH State Police Forensic Laboratory, some 24,000 were analyses of blood and urine samples obtained by the NH Department of Corrections for drug and alcohol screening purposes.
The laboratory, housed in the NH Department of Safety building in Concord, is split into two divisions: the Toxicology Lab and the Criminal Lab.
The toxicology lab, which has 19 full-time employees, conducts screenings of blood and urine samples collected by various police agencies and Departments of Correction from offenders and prisoners.
The Criminal Lab – what you think when you think forensics – has 28 full-time employees and performs analyses of firearms/tool marks, latent impressions (fingerprints, tire-prints and footprints), DNA, serology, digital evidence and controlled substances submitted as evidence by police departments, the NH State Police and even federal agencies working on cases in-state.
The cost of running the lab is high – considering the equipment and materials necessary to do what it does – and often much more than the state can afford. Therefore, funding for the lab is heavily supplemented by federal grants.
"For the most part, salaries are paid by the state," says Timothy Pifer, Director of the NH State Police Forensics Lab, "and equipment is bought with federal grant money."
But Pifer says that federal funding for the lab is shrinking while the work expands. For instance, one mass spectrometer, a device the lab uses to analyze blood, urine and drug samples, costs $100,000. The lab has eight, two of which will soon need replacement.
"The murder rate has dropped considerably since the 1980s, but with the increased capabilities of the technology, we’re getting a lot more submissions from other types of crime. Ten years ago, we’d get 40 exhibits; now we’re getting hundreds," he said. "Property crime rates are rising and we’re seeing a lot more poly-drug use; homicides are down, but everything else is on the rise."
As evidence of his point, Pifer opened two large refrigerators in the case evidence storage room, each one filled with rape kits. Pifer estimated that the crime lab takes in 20-40 rape kits every month.
"Just because a case isn’t on the news doesn’t mean it isn’t happening," Pifer says, "And we’re working on all of them."