From the Unabomber to Anthrax, the USPS National Forensic Lab has Seen it All
Stephanie Smith has an exciting job. As assistant lab director of the Physical Sciences Unit at the National Forensics Laboratory of the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS)—the law enforcement arm of the United States Postal Service— she puts her daily efforts into making the U.S. mail safer by helping solve thousands of postal crimes.
“The USPS National Forensic Laboratory is a full-service forensic laboratory that primarily provides analyses of a wide range of materials that may find their way into the mail stream or into postal facilities or are deposited during the commission of a crime against the U.S. Postal Service, its employees or its customers,” Smith says.
Additionally, her lab routinely supports the investigations of the U.S. Postal Service’s Office of the Inspector General, and occasionally the investigations of state, local or other federal agencies that might benefit from the specialized skills and knowledge of forensic analysts or forensic lab services.
“We also provide response for major crime scenes and provide on average two tours of the facility per month to customers, international law enforcement personnel, [and] students from middle school to college-age and other groups,” Smith explains.
Smith’s most serious, but luckily infrequent, investigations involve dangerous mailings, which include explosive devices and assaults upon dedicated mail carriers. Her team also investigates robberies, vandalism and burglaries of postal facilities; child exploitation; controlled substances sent through the mail; mail theft; identity theft; and fraud.
“The Postal Inspection Service is often referred to as the ‘silent service,’” Smith says. “While few people know we exist and fewer still understand what we do, the work we perform is profoundly important.”
“The past and present scientific staff of Forensic Laboratory Services worked closely with the Postal Inspection Service on high-profile cases including the Unabomber case; the Chugiak, Alaska, mail bomb case; the conviction of televangelist Jim Bakker on mail fraud; a fraud case involving Clifford Irving/Howard Hughes; and the Amerithrax case, to name but a few.”
The National Forensic Laboratory is a specially designed 44,000-squarefoot facility spread over two levels. Within that space, the Physical Sciences Unit takes up about 10,000 square feet.
“[Forty-four thousand square feet] is an amazingly tight operation in terms of space for a laboratory that serves the whole country,” says Smith.
Just 65 employees—58 scientific staff members supported by an administrative staff of seven—run the entire operation. The laboratory is divided into four units, each managed by an assistant laboratory director, which report directly to the laboratory director.
“The administrative personnel and the scientific personnel of three of the units (Fingerprints, Physical Sciences and Questioned Documents & Imaging) are located at the National Forensic Laboratory, and the personnel of the Digital Evidence Unit (except for the assistant laboratory director), which includes 23 of the 65 positions, are located throughout the United States,” says Smith, who as the assistant lab director of the Physical Sciences Unit leads the work of seven forensic chemists and a firearm and toolmark examiner.
Within the Physical Sciences Unit, there’s a Chemistry Section and the Physical Evidence Section. The eight analysts in the unit cover 14 disciplines and sub-disciplines that represent more than 75 percent of the competencies offered by the Forensic Lab Services.
“The disciplines and sub-disciplines offered by the personnel of the unit include analysis of controlled substances, adhesives and tapes, explosives, fibers, firearms, footwear marks, general chemical unknowns, glass, hair, ignitable liquids, paints and polymers, physical fits, serial number restoration, serological screening, and toolmarks,” Smith says. “Most of the members of the unit are also trained and experienced in crime scene processing.”
Forensic document examiner Lisa Stadmeyer examines Postal Money Orders for evidence of counterfeiting.
In addition to extensive work training, the employees of the unit possess degrees ranging from a bachelor’s degree to a PhD in chemistry, forensic science, forensic chemistry or natural sciences.
“While the mighty Physical Sciences Unit might represent less than a quarter of the staff and about a quarter of the physical space, we pack a wallop in the force of the services we offer,” Smith says.
Smith herself earned a bachelor’s degree in forensic science from the University of Central Florida and began a career in forensic science at the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory in Baton Rouge. She then worked at the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Division of Forensic Sciences and later at the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Forensic Laboratory.
“I am beginning my 26th year in forensic science and my fifth year in forensic science management,” she says.
In the 2011 fiscal year, Forensic Laboratory Services received about 2,500 sample submissions. The Physical Sciences Unit processed about 300 of those submissions. Smith, along with her eight analysts within the unit, processes these samples, which turn out to be about 20 to 25 per month.
The team is able to run a smooth operation by keeping to an inventory and maintenance schedule set by the main lab.
“Forensic Laboratory Services utilizes a laboratory information management system (LIMS) designed by and created for FLS,” Smith explains. “The system allows for most customers to enter evidence directly into a property and evidence program and then transfer custody electronically. The personnel working out of the National Laboratory are supported by a single laboratory technician who receives all evidence and opens assignments as requested by the customer.”
Managers, such as Smith, assign each case to a particular employee. The employee holds custody of the evidence in a storage area until an analyst is ready to start work on the case.
“Custody is tracked electronically through LIMS. The LIMS system was modified in the past few years to include tracking of all chemicals received, used and disposed of by Forensic Laboratory Services.”
The Physical Sciences Unit team utilizes a variety of common laboratory instruments, such as gas chromatography–mass spectrometers (GC-MS) and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopes (FT-IR). To ensure that the complex instrumentation functions properly, the forensic lab utilizes service contracts for annual preventive maintenance and repairs.
“We also utilize the concept of the primary operator as the responsible party for routine calibration and maintenance associated with ensuring quality performance and results on each instrument,” Smith says.
Forensic chemist Dale Forrester, Ph.D., of the Physical Sciences Unit examines pharmaceutical products prior to chemical analysis.
Working at Forensic Laboratory Services requires a special skill set and training. Given the specialized and intricate nature of the work, lab managers take great care when looking for someone to add to their team. Each time a position opens up, upper management puts together a selection committee made up of members who are experts in the disciplines for which the lab is hiring.
The committee reviews each application carefully and picks candidates who seem promising based on experience and skill level. If an applicant proves to be a strong candidate on paper, the committee brings him or her in for an intensive interview process.
“I recently had the privilege of serving as chair of the selection panel responsible for selecting six new employees to Forensic Laboratory Services,” Smith says. “The final decision is made by a selecting official who may apply even greater scrutiny to those recommended by the selection panel.”
Firearm and Toolmark Examiner Shirley Marc examines a firing pin impression using a comparison microscope.
Forensic latent print analyst Ken Thomas removes tape from envelopes to be processed for latent fingerprints
Like many organizations, Forensic Laboratory Services is facing financial challenges. Contrary to what many believe, the Postal Service doesn’t receive funding from the federal government.
“We are struggling to remain a vibrant service provider to the American public,” Smith says. “All of the employees of the USPS play a role in this effort and it has not been without real pain and sacrifice.”
One example of this is being able to keep the technical staff up to date by providing continuous training, cutting-edge equipment and exposure to developments in technology. Managers like Smith have to work hard to ensure that despite budget constraints, their staff benefit from learning about advances in their field.
“At the National Forensic Laboratory we host quarterly internal forensic seminars, where peers are encouraged to share knowledge of research or interesting and challenging casework,” Smith says. “We also expect employees who attend outside training to provide updates to their peers.”
Smith and other managers also take advantage of online resources such as webinars to update their staff, ensuring that they provide the best possible methods for advancements within their means.
In the end, Smith believes that sharing challenges with other colleagues is one way to overcome those challenges and loving what you do is another way to conquer hard times.
“Some agencies might have fewer challenges in one area or another, but finances are tight everywhere; keeping employees trained, engaged, productive and enthusiastic is challenging; and finding a convenient stopping point at the end of the day is not just challenging, it is often impossible,” she says. “There is something to the adage that if you do something that you like, it doesn’t seem so much like work. The work that we lead is so very important, and we have the ability to affect the work product directly through our leadership.”
To manage the lab and make sure that all her duties are met, Smith adheres to a routine that’s proven successful for her.
“I typically start the day by addressing e-mails from the evening before and then creating the to-do list of the day,” she says. “Every day I plot the plan for the day—I rarely complete exactly what I set out to do but with a plan I come closer to my goals than simply reacting to the loudest problem or the person who has a false priority created by a lack of planning.”
Smith is also responsible for assigning the diverse caseload to the members of her unit. She tries to do this within three days of receiving the cases, but only performs this task once a day or every other day, unless the case is urgent.
Smith also responds to inquiries from the unit’s customers almost every day and serves as the national coordinator for DNA services.
“We do not offer in-house DNA analysis, but we contract for such services when the investigative needs warrant it,” she says. “We encourage a lot of communication with our customers, as a courtesy and because it improves the overall work product.”
The National Forensic Laboratory, located in Dulles, Virginia.
- Gas chromatography–mass spectrometers (GC-MS)
- Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopes (FT-IR) with microscope and attenuated total reflectance (ATR) attachments
- Assorted microscopes including stereomicroscopes, Polarized Light Microscopy (PLM), and comparison microscopes
- X-ray diffraction (XRD)
- Scanning Electron Microscopy—Energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDAX)
Most of her workday, however, is taken up by performing administrative reviews of all the work that leaves the Physical Sciences Unit and technical reviews of about a quarter of the disciplines.
“This action, though challenging, results in a consistent quality work product,” she says.
It’s a lot of detailed work but Smith can’t imagine doing anything else with her days.
“I love forensic science and I believe in the truth that comes through science. I am grateful every day that I chose this career,” Smith says. “Rare is the career that permits one to apply an affinity and respect for science to diverse problem-solving challenges, the results of which can have such a profound effect on the criminal justice system.”
“My colleagues and I are committed to helping to keep the U.S. Mail, its customers and its employees safe and to ensure the public trust in the mail,” Smith adds.