A Forensic Science Center in Southeast Wisconsin?

By Joe Peterangelo

The recent convergence of several related endeavors led us to examine the potential benefits and challenges of developing a forensic science center in southeast Wisconsin:

  • The State of Wisconsin is planning to develop a new crime laboratory in the region.
  • Milwaukee County is seeking new facilities for its Medical Examiner (M.E.) and Office of Emergency Management (OEM).
  • The Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) is seeking to enhance its program offerings and research capabilities.

Could some or all of those entities work together to develop a shared center that is greater than the sum of its parts and more cost-effective for taxpayers than separate facilities?

With the support of two of those parties — MCW and Milwaukee County — we launched a research project last summer to explore those questions. Our report, Breaking New Ground?, lays out the current strengths and needs of the possible partners and offers insights gained from our review of similar collaborations in other metro areas.

Our research included in-depth interviews with leaders of nine forensic science centers that have been built in the U.S. and Canada since 2004, as well as the principal potential stakeholders in southeast Wisconsin. We cover a range of important issues, from facility construction to operations and staffing, and from financing to governance.

Our analysis reveals several important benefits to developing a forensic science center in southeast Wisconsin. The construction and operations of such a facility could save money; open up new training opportunities and increase the pipeline of forensic specialists; facilitate collaboration and communication that improve the quality of operations and advance criminal justice investigations and testimony; support the development and validation of new scientific methodologies; and spur significant research opportunities.

Yet, we also found that the potential for collaboration should not be over-sold. In fact, our interviews with representatives from other collaborative forensic science facilities revealed that such collaboration can be limited by the distinct missions and security requirements of the individual partners, and that considerable planning and persistence must occur for any such potential to be maximized.

Overall, we believe the pluses of co-location far outweigh the minuses, and that the potential for such a partnership represents a rare and potentially ground-breaking opportunity.

It is important to note that in September 2016, during the middle of our research, the State of Wisconsin issued a request for proposals (RFP) to develop a new crime lab in southeast Wisconsin. Soon after, MCW decided to submit a proposal to the State to develop a co-located facility for all three entities. At that point, we decided to wait to release our research findings publicly (though we shared the report with MCW and the County) until after the State made its decision on the RFP so as not to appear to be endorsing one proposal over the others.

Last week, MCW announced that its proposal had not been selected by the State, which has prompted us to release our report publicly today. We believe this research holds almost as much relevance now as it would have had we released it when it was completed back in December.

Notably, one of the key insights from our analysis of other forensic science centers was that the most significant opportunities for collaboration appear to be between medical examiner’s offices and academic medical institutions. While a partnership with the State crime lab could have been beneficial from a cost efficiency perspective, significant potential for collaboration between the crime lab and the other potential partners might have been difficult to achieve.

Consequently, our report supports the notion of MCW and Milwaukee County moving forward together on a co-located facility on or near the MCW campus. It also finds that further efficiencies might be achieved by including additional partners, such as the OEM and potentially medical examiner functions from other counties in southeast Wisconsin.

We hope this report will provide valuable assistance to each of the potential project partners as they proceed in their efforts to develop new, modernized facilities.