Special Agents Should Be Phased Out as FBI Crime Laboratory Examiners

Gao ID: GGD-80-60 July 18, 1980

Within the criminal justice community, the high costs of the special pay and retirement benefits granted to law enforcement officers have prompted analysis of the need for officers to staff support positions. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) crime laboratory represents an untapped opportunity to achieve economies by replacing special agents with civilian examiners. Of the four major Federal crime laboratories, only the FBI uses special agents as laboratory examiners. The FBI believes that special agent examiners bring an extra dimension to the analysis of physical evidence. It claims that agent/examiners provide superior examination services, make better court witnesses, and perform better field support functions. These views are not fully shared by the heads of other Federal laboratories; nor are they supported by the users of the laboratories, the majority of the examiners, and Federal prosecutors.

While having special agents as examiners has some benefits, the benefits are largely intangible and infrequent and, therefore, do not outweigh the added costs. Specifically, GAO found that: (1) officials at other Federal laboratories believed the use of agent/examiners was not essential; (2) laboratory examiners, FBI agent/examiners included, did not believe that investigative experience was useful in performing the majority of physical evidence analyses, and investigative experience did not alter the nature of laboratory examinations; (3) investigators who used Federal laboratories were equally satisfied with the services provided by all laboratories; (4) Federal prosecutors believed examiners from all Federal laboratories provided effective court testimony; and (5) FBI agent/examiners rarely performed field investigative support. The FBI laboratory is concerned that civilian staffing would lead to personnel turnover, resulting in an unstable workforce and high training costs. However, other Federal crime laboratories report no problems in retaining personnel. Finally, the use of special agent personnel impose significant additional costs compared to civilian personnel. These costs arise because criminal investigators are usually higher graded and recieve special retirement benefits. GAO estimates that annual cost savings of over $.5 million are possible. Firm estimates of the potential cost savings depend on decisions regarding staffing and compensation.


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