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Photo of Dr Penny Haddrill

Ask Penny

Please post your questions for this week in the comments section below. Penny will select the most liked/interesting questions and publish her response to these on this step by Wednesday of week 2.

Please ‘like’ questions posted by other learners if you are also interested in having these answered.

First of all, I’d like to extend a very warm welcome to you all, and thank you for joining the Introduction to Forensic Science course. It’s great to see so many people from all across the world taking the course and getting involved with the discussions. Thank you for all of your great questions this week, and for all of the positive comments about how much you are enjoying the course. I wish that we had time to answer all of your questions but I’ve focused on those that were most popular and most closely related to my own area of knowledge, which is forensic biology, and in particular forensic genetics.

Crime Scene Managers

The majority of questions this week related to the Crime Scene Manager; who they are, what qualifications and experience they have, how their role develops over the course of an investigation, and how they interact with other members of the investigation team. For example, Claude Loiseau-Watson, Helen M, Helen Thomas, Gemma Boyd, Kayla Widman, Shelley Craig, Lorraine Owen, Anne Bee, Marion Wells and Danielle Mitchell all submitted great questions about the CSM. The short answer to these questions is “it depends” – the specific details of a CSM’s position, roles and responsibilities will differ depending on jurisdiction, and to some extent the context of the case in question. This is particularly well illustrated using the example of the UK, which covers three jurisdictions (and legal systems); England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, CSMs will usually be police officers, whereas in England & Wales, they will tend to be trained civilians. However, in general, a CSM’s role is a very important one, and they are responsible for the initial assessment of a scene, planning the forensic strategy and agreeing this with the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO), briefing scene personnel and allocating appropriate numbers to individual aspects of scene examination (which will differ depending on the detailed requirements of the case), advising the SIO on the investigative potential of different evidence types and the value of using specialists (which will also depend on the detailed requirements of the case), and coordinating the individual experts within the overall scene (which as several of you spotted could get logistically quite difficult). They are also responsible for managing the welfare of all scene personnel, carrying out health and safety risk assessments and implementing control measures. After the initial processing of the scene, the CSM is responsible for the ongoing coordination and implementation of the forensic strategy, advising the investigation team on the potential investigative value of different evidence types, planning and managing the forensic aspects of post mortem examinations, communicating findings from the scene and the forensic team to the investigation team, as well as maintaining ongoing communication between forensic laboratories, individual experts and the investigation team. If you are interested in finding out some more, then this article gives some further information about the role, as well as the skills and qualifications needed to become a CSM, and the career path that a CSM might follow.

Number of cases

Related to this, a number of people asked about how many cases a CSM would be working on at any given time, and if scenes were found to be linked, for example in the case of serial offences, whether the same CSM would be assigned. For example, Megan Shaw, Gaby Stewart, Sheryl Browne, Ellie Bartle, Holly Kinsey, Lucy Wright and Jane Ridson all had interesting questions relating to this In general, a busy CSM would be involved in several major investigations at any one time, and each of these would probably be at a different stage. If there were multiple scenes associated with a single incident (e.g. a murder site and a body deposition site), then the same CSM would probably work on all of the scenes. If the case involved serial offences, rather than just multiple scenes (e.g. multiple murders committed by the same perpetrator), then a Crime Scene Coordinator would oversee the CSMs working on the different individual cases.

Others asked whether forensic scientists would be working on multiple cases at any given time, or whether they tend to focus on single cases. Again, this depends to some extent on the way that forensic services are provided in different jurisdictions, but in general, high case-loads mean that scientists will usually be working on multiple cases. Within UK forensic laboratories, when a case comes in, someone in the laboratory will be assigned to oversee the case, usually a reporting officer. This is the individual who will coordinate the forensic work involved in the case, examine any testing results related to the case and produce a report detailing these outcomes. Reporting officers will usually be working on many cases at any given time, as will the forensic scientists who they coordinate.

Cordon decisions

Another question that came up a few times was about making decisions regarding the placing of cordons around a crime scene; Pamela Wilson, Andrew West and Martin Sweeney all had questions relating to this. Deciding where to place cordons can be a very difficult decision depending on the specific circumstances of a case, and can be particularly difficult if the scene is outdoors and environmental conditions such as bad weather may threaten to compromise the scene. In general, two cordons are placed around a scene. The first is an inner cordon around the focal point of the scene, which can only be crossed by relevant scene personnel and specialists. This is tightly controlled and monitored by police using a scene log recording every single individual who goes in and out of a scene, and at what times. Secondly, an outer cordon is set up at what seems to be the limits of the scene, with more moderately controlled access. This provides a more general barrier to the general public and the media, but local residents or those with legitimate need to access the area would be allowed through. It can be very difficult to determine where the limits of a scene are, and quick decisions may have to be made about what to include within a scene. Sometimes a larger area will be selected and then reduced later if it is established that there is no evidence to be found in the larger area. However, there are obviously limits on this, and so sometimes a compromise will need to be made. This also relates to Robin Banks question about securing scenes and how this is done; usually the cordons will be placed along natural barriers that restrict access or by putting up crime scene/police tape, and whilst the processing of a crime scene is ongoing a police officer will usually be controlling and monitoring access to the scene, particularly to the area within the inner cordon.

Forensic science in the UK

Several people also asked about how forensic services are provided both in the UK and elsewhere; for example, Valeria Soto, Catherine Bee, Washela Jooste, Alexis Dingley and Mark Lynn all contributed questions and/or information on this topic. Again this depends on jurisdiction, and the provision of forensic services is different all over the world. In some countries, such as the United States and South Africa, most Crime Scene Investigators are serving police officers. In the UK, scientists are not police officers, but the way forensic science is provided varies across the country. In Scotland, provision is by the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services, which is a government owned organisation with four laboratories in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. The situation in England and Wales used to be similar, with the government owned Forensic Science Service providing services to police forces. In 2012 the UK government closed the FSS as a result of huge financial losses, and forensic services are now either provided by private companies or have been moved in-house in police forces.

Along with substantial cuts to police budgets, this fragmentation of the market has led to concerns that scientific standards may be compromised. Catherine Bee, Mark Lynn, Colin Armstrong, Valeria Soto and Sarah Malone had a really interesting discussion about the state of the forensic field in the UK, and how the changes that have occurred over the last few years have affected the provision of forensic services. With limited budgets police may not be able to request a full range of forensic tests in their investigations, meaning they might miss vital evidence. In addition, moving testing to in-house police laboratories puts added pressure on scientists to come up with results to secure convictions for the police. Experts in the field have increasingly been warning that the situation is likely to lead to miscarriages of justice, and that a new governmental strategy for forensic science is needed. Although some of the private labs have been behind some high profile successes in the last few years, there have also been problems. For example, the company LGC were behind the re-examination of forensic evidence in the Stephen Lawrence case, which led to the conviction of two of his killers, but they were also behind the arrest of an innocent man for rape. Adam Scott was arrested and held in custody for five months because a DNA profile that matched his profile was identified in a swab sample from a rape victim. It later transpired that Adam Scott’s genetic material had become mixed up with material connected with the rape case as a result of human error at LGC.

In March 2016, the UK Home Office published its much awaited Forensic Science Strategy and announced that it planned to establish a new Forensic Science Service to move back to a national approach to forensic science provision in the UK. The forensic science community are pushing for this approach to include giving statutory powers to the Forensic Science Regulator, who is responsible for ensuring that high standards are maintained across the market, to make sure providers are delivering quality and consistency of service. It remains to be seen how the provision of forensic service in the UK will change over the next few years. It has always been difficult to get jobs in the forensic field, as vacancies are relatively rare, particularly since the closure of the FSS; it is hoped that this may change if the government invests money in a new national forensic science service.

Future developments in forensic science

Finally, Sian Jones asked if there was any particular aspect of forensic science that gets me sitting up and listening, and so I thought it might be interesting to tell you about some of the ongoing developments and breakthroughs that are on the horizon for forensic science. Although many of the techniques and tests used in forensic science have improved over the years as a result of technology getting more sensitive, more efficient and cheaper, there actually haven’t been many huge breakthroughs since the development of DNA fingerprinting and then DNA profiling in the 1980s and 1990s. One reason for this is that it can be very costly and time-consuming to introduce new techniques into laboratories, and new methods also need to be validated and checked to determine their reliability and accuracy before they can be considered admissible as evidence in court. However, there is a small but active research community working in forensic science and developing some new and exciting technologies that will hopefully be implemented in operational forensic laboratories in the future.

One major focus of the research community is in developing portable forensic testing, so that scientists can quickly give answers to the police at the scene of a crime. There is research being done looking at the development of chemical sensors that can be used at crime scene to identify different types of biological material, such as DNA or body fluids. One recent development that is beginning to be implemented in casework is testing samples at crime scenes or in police custody suites to produce limited DNA profiles very quickly. For example the ParaDNA system developed by the company LGC can now generate limited DNA profile information in just 75 minutes, which gives police very useful information to work with early in an investigation.

Another very exciting development is the use of RNA testing in forensic science. RNA is a molecule similar to DNA but whereas your DNA is the same in almost every cell of your body, RNA differs between different cell types depending on their function. RNA profiling can be used to identify what kind of tissue is present in an unknown stain, for example blood, semen, saliva etc. This can be particularly useful when mixtures of body fluids are found, as commonly occurs in sexual offence cases. This type of testing has not been implemented in the UK, but is being used in casework in the Netherlands and Australia.

Finally, another very promising area of research is in developing more sophisticated tests on DNA that allow the investigator to determine some physical characteristics about the individual who left the sample. If a DNA sample is found at a crime scene and a profile is produced, without a suspect or a match on a DNA database there is very little that investigators can do with the DNA evidence. However, there is now quite a large body of research developing tests that allow more information to be extracted from the DNA sample to help investigators try to identify the donor. For example, by examining the genetic type that an individual carries at certain places in the genome it is possible to determine what eye colour and hair colour they are likely to have, and also what ethnic group they are likely to come from. It is also possible to estimate an individual’s age by looking at a type of chemical modification in their DNA, which changes as they get older. Some of these tests are now so good that they can estimate an individual’s age to within a few years. There is scope for a range of characteristics to be tested for in future, for example there is work being done using DNA testing to determine the face shape of the individual. This is a really fascinating area of research with the potential to have a huge impact on the investigation of crime.

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This article is from the free online course:

Introduction to Forensic Science

University of Strathclyde