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Forensic Science Division History

Forensic Science Division History
In 1923, August Vollmer, former Police Chief of Berkeley, California, accepted the appointment as LAPD Chief of Police.  Chief Vollmer, known for being an innovative reformer, initiated much restructuring and reform during his one year with the LAPD.   He completely reorganized the Department, improving working conditions, establishing new standards of professionalism, and laying the groundwork for what eventually became the Scientific Investigation Division (SID) and more recently became the Forensic Science Division.  Vollmer believed that scientific analysis of evidence had a place in police work; so he ordered formation of the first crime lab in the United States.  The FBI crime laboratory was not established until seven years later.

On July 1, 1923, Police Officer Rex Welsh received the assignment as LAPD’s first criminalist because he had some scientific training.  Officer Welsh completed scientific coursework in college and had a desire to apply scientific analysis to police work.  To perform his duties, Officer Welsh was given an antiquated microscope, a handful of chemicals, a smattering of glassware and a cubbyhole lab in a corner of Central Division.  It was a difficult beginning. Officer Welsh was challenged with setting up operations, purchasing scientific equipment/supplies, and establishing sound and reliable scientific methods that would be applicable to criminal investigations.

In 1929, the Crime Lab received strong scientific buttressing with the addition of civilian Ray Pinker.  Pinker graduated from the University of Southern California with a bachelor of science degree in pharmacology.  Welsh and Pinker worked together initiating protocols for the analysis of physical evidence.  Additionally, Pinker introduced instrumentation to crime lab operations.  As the first civilian criminalist, Pinker took over the more technical work of sifting through physical evidence in criminal cases, while Welsh concentrated chiefly on narcotics analysis.

In 1934, Rex Welsh died tragically in a boating accident.  His replacement was Police Officer Leland Jones.  Pinker developed expertise in trace evidence analysis and Jones developed expertise in latent fingerprint collection/analysis.  In time, Pinker and Jones earned the respect of detectives by proving that their evidence (a partial print or a tiny seed caught on a shoe or trouser leg) would incriminate or eliminate a suspect.

During the 1930s and 40s, the crime lab grew and diversified.  The crime lab outgrew its name. In addition to criminalists, latent fingerprint specialists and forensic photographers were now on staff.  All of these specialists were now part of SID.  As funding for more instrumentation became available, SID was able to perform more types of analyses and answer more investigative questions with scientific findings.

During the 1950’s, the Los Angeles City Council allocated funds for the building of new police facilities citywide.  As soon as the Police Administration Building (PAB), later known as Parker Center, was completed in downtown Los Angeles, SID moved in.  SID consisted of the Criminalistics Lab, Photography, Electronics, Polygraph, Questioned Documents, and Latent Print Units.  The Criminalistics Lab, Photography, Electronics, Polygraph and Questioned Documents Units moved into the fourth floor and the Latent Print Unit moved into the second floor of PAB.  As soon as the San Fernando Valley police facility was completed in Van Nuys, a satellite SID laboratory began operating on the second floor and included all SID services except polygraph.

SID staffing was predominantly sworn until the 1970’s when more civilian positions were created and officers retired or transferred.  The Firearms and Explosives Section did not begin civilianizing until the 1990s.  In the 1970s, SID had expanded and outgrown the allocated space at PAB.  The Firearms and Explosives Section, Police Composite Artist, Forensic Surveyor and Blood Alcohol Unit were moved to another satellite facility at 2nd and Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles.  This portion of SID moved again to 4th and Spring Street and then to San Fernando Road in the 1980s.

In 1986, Detective Arleigh McCree and Police Officer Ronald Ball were killed in North Hollywood, dismantling a pipe bomb.  The incident prompted an in-depth evaluation of the Firearms and Explosives section.  Police Chief Daryl Gates, a close associate of Arleigh McCree, concluded the Firearms and Explosives Section should be divided into two units so that explosives experts could concentrate their training and skills in this one specific area of expertise.  These two sections were separated in 1991.

In the 1980s, SID had again outgrown the allocated space at PAB.  The Serology Unit of the Criminalistics Laboratory had taken over unused cafeteria space on the 8th floor at PAB.   By 1990, SID was divided into three entities: the Criminalistics Laboratory, the Technical Laboratory and the Explosives Section.  The Firearms Unit was reorganized into the Criminalistics Laboratory and began civilianization, with criminalists replacing police officers.  At the same time, the Blood Alcohol Unit, Toxicology, Narcotics, Trace Evidence, Special Testing, Serology, Forensic Surveyor and Police Composite Artist moved into a newly remodeled facility at the Piper Technical Center.

By the year 2000, the Department’s Area Latent Print Officer (ALPO) program was ended, and the positions were civilianized into a section known as Forensic Print Specialists.  At that time, the Latent Print Unit increased fourfold.  The Electronics and Photography Units had grown, as did the Crime Lab, and SID needed more work space.  The Latent Print Unit created satellite operations at the Ahmanson Recruit Training Center and Valley SID in addition to their central operations in PAB.  Plans were initiated to create a regional crime lab facility to house the SID Criminalistics Laboratory as well as portions of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Scientific Services Bureau. The plans also included classroom and office space for the California State University Los Angeles Criminal Justice Program, the California Forensic Science Institute and the California Criminalistics Institute.  The Police Composite Artist was replaced by contractors who now serve in that capacity. The Special Testing Unit was absorbed into the Trace Analysis Unit, and the Blood Alcohol Unit was absorbed into the Toxicology Unit of the Criminalistics Laboratory.  In 2003, the SID Explosives Section was reorganized into Emergency Services Division and was no longer a part of SID.

Construction of the regional crime laboratory facility was completed in 2007 and the facility was officially named the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center (FSC).  As the crime lab moved out of Piper Tech, the Electronics Unit moved in for six years until the new Technical Laboratory facility was completed in 2013.  After moving to FSC, the Serology/DNA Unit expanded so much that they started backfilling the lab space at Piper Tech.  Attrition and the Department’s hiring freeze brought back the ALPO program in 2010 to help the Latent Print Unit meet their demands.  The Latent Print, Polygraph and Photography Units were the last units to leave Parker Center, and in January 2013 they joined the Electronics Unit and moved into the newly remodeled Technical Laboratory at Piper Tech. SID had expanded to more than 360 positions by September 6, 2015, at which time it was officially split into two entities: the Technical Investigation Division (TID) and Forensic Science Division (FSD). TID is comprised of the Polygraph, Latent Print, Photography, and Electronics Units; while FSD is comprised of the Questioned Documents, Serology/DNA, Trace Analysis, Firearms Analysis, Field Investigation, Quality Assurance, Toxicology, and Narcotics Analysis Units.

Since the two-man team of Pinker and Jones, the criminal justice system has placed primary emphasis on forensic evidence, sparking enormous growth for both the FSD and TID.  From a cubbyhole equipped with little more than a chemistry set, these investigative divisions expanded into an operation utilizing state-of-the-art techniques and equipment, spread out over three different locations.