May 3, 2021
Grayling Laboratory Director Connie Swander kicked off her career with the Michigan State Police (MSP) having already spent 18 years as a medical technologist in the private sector. More than three decades later, most of her original MSP colleagues hung up their white coats years ago. Half of the staff she now manages weren't born when she began working at the laboratory.
"I love this job. I've worked with and for some great people," said Swander. "That's the hardest thing about retiring and probably what kept me from doing it for so long, but this felt like the right time."
At 74-years-old and with an impressive 35-years in the State Police's Forensic Science Division, Swander will log her last day May 26. Her official retirement date is June 1.
"If I had waited until next year, I would have had 18 years as a medical technologist, 18 years as a biologist and 18 years as a laboratory director; the trifecta," said Swander, who started with the MSP, assigned to the Grayling Laboratory, analyzing biological fluids like blood and saliva.
"We used test tubes and assessed samples by hand. When agencies submitted evidence, we documented the pieces by physically writing. I eventually had to switch to an electric typewriter because no one could read my reports. Now we're paperless. I have a hard time imagining what's next," Swander added.
In those early days, she and three others were tasked with setting up the Serology Unit in Grayling. DNA profiling for criminal investigations was just gaining traction in the United States and not in use at that time. The MSP started using DNA analysis of crime scene evidence in 1991.
Her work took her all over the Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Michigan, a total of 35 counties, for years. She still finds herself mentally back at those crime scenes when driving around the Grayling area where she raised her two sons and continues to live with her husband.
Swander promoted to laboratory director for the Grayling and Marquette facilities in 2003. At the time, each examiner averaged roughly 200 cases each year, which was more than triple her tally when she began. The Marquette Laboratory would later get its own director, allowing Swander to focus her time on the Grayling Laboratory.
Swander estimates she's testified in court more than 300 times and the cases stick with her too - homicides, sexual assaults, child abuse and deadly traffic crashes. She was named MSP's Civilian of the Year in 1992.
"I've always felt we're here for a reason. God placed me here for a reason. A lot of times it's the forensic evidence that seals the case - good or bad," she said. "Sadly, I'm leaving with a few cases not solved."
"Connie embodies the traits we value in our forensic scientists as a dedicated, passionate and service-oriented colleague and friend," said Jeff Nye, director of the Forensic Division. "Throughout her distinguished career she has inspired many professionals to become better scientists through her leadership and positive outlook on life."
Swander took every opportunity to make her voice heard and offers that advice to newcomers - participate however you can. She's served on the American Society of Crime Laboratory Director's (ASCLD) Board of Directors, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Director's Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD-LAB) Board of Directors, as well as the FBI's Criminal Justice Advisory Policy Board.
Swander looks forward to having more time with her grandchildren and spending time in warmer weather. The animal rescue and church groups she currently volunteers with will benefit from some extra hours too.
"It's been an exciting and rewarding career," Swander said. "But now it's time for someone else to lead."
Time for new blood, appropriately.