I’m a Forensic Identification Scientist at the Surete du Quebec provincial police in Canada. My job is to develop fingermarks on exhibits, either in the lab or directly at the crime scene if required. I typically use scientific methods involving chemistry, physics, biology and fluorescence to visualize latent fingermark. I also do research and development. I develop new methods and/or technologies to find fingermarks or I assess technologies newly available on the market to determine if it is worth the investment for our lab.
How did you end up working in your current field?
I’m a policeman’s son, so law enforcement work has always been part of my life. I used to say I was raised in a police station! At University, I chose to study sciences. When I learned that it was possible to work for the police community as a forensic scientist, I was immediately interested. I started in the forensic identification field as a lab technician immediately after my microbiology degree. I continued my studies in parallel with my work with a Masters in Technology assessment and management. Eventually, I got a Forensic Identification Scientist position. I’m still studying today, completing my PhD in Forensic Science at Lausanne University.
What are the major pros and cons of your job?
Pros: As a Forensic Identification Scientist, you are really involved in the investigation process. You can see the evidence of a crime even before the evening news talk about this so-called evidence. You will always be aware of the true story of a crime, not the official one for television. For someone who seeks the truth, that’s great! As a forensic identification scientist, you bring science to the law enforcement field, helping them in their investigation by providing new facts and evidence. Your work really has a big impact on justice. It is possible to find evidence to convict a criminal, but also to exonerate the innocent. We work in the lab, but we also have the chance, on specific crimes, to work directly at the crime scene. But the best part of the job remains, when working on an investigation that seems to give no result, and then suddenly you find THE fingermark that could change everything. Whether it gives a hit on AFIS or not, this fingermark gives hope to the team that the resolution of the investigation is still possible. The satisfaction felt is indescribable! You really get the feeling of being an important member of the investigation team!
Cons: Obviously, the forensic identification scientist knows the truth about a lot of files, but this work requires a high degree of confidentiality and you won’t be able to talk about it to anyone, even your loved ones. Gossip lovers beware! This scientific job also involves you being employed by the government… so money is always an object. This means that your salary is usually quite low, and in Canada, even lower than the police officer. So you work for passion of the field, not for money. You will also undergo frequent budget cuts and live with the motto to always do more with less. On the working environment side, expect to have to work with cadavers (fingermarks on skin, crime scenes), evidence covered with putrefaction fluid, guns, machetes stained with blood, and lots of other unsavory and unusual evidence. Fear of blood is not an option. Finally, you must be available. If a crime requires your immediate presence on the scene, be it day or night, or on the weekend, you need to go, even if you were in the middle of a dinner with friends.
How do you feel your field of work has changed over recent years?
The forensic identification field has evolved extremely rapidly in the recent years. Several universities began research programs in forensic identification, feeding the field with much scientific and technological innovation. I would say that the forensic identification field is in good health and has a very positive prospective for growth!
When thinking about your work history, are there any particular cases/investigations that stick in your mind?
I distinctly remember three stories related to the morgue, the lab and the crime scene.
Let’s start with the morgue. I remember one case where we were looking for a bloody fingermark on the skin of a poor victim who was raped and brutally murdered. We were using a reagent called Ortho-Tolidine to discover traces of blood invisible to the naked eye. The results were slow in coming, and we were not very enthusiastic. Suddenly, after spraying, a very faint green fingermark began to appear… I remember our excitement when we discovered this fingermark was suitable for research in the AFIS system. It was like winning the lotto! Unfortunately, this story ends badly. The fingermark found was not able to identify a suspect. You should know that to be identified, a fingermark donor must be part of the AFIS database. Probably, our potential suspect was never convicted or sentenced, so his fingerprints were not in the database.
Now the lab. I remember the four years work I had to invest in developing a new treatment for fingermark development. I was looking at the time for a new method that would be less expensive and easier to use; that would enable us to develop fingermarks on wet porous surfaces such as wet paper or cardboard. I finally succeeded in developing the Oil Red O. I remember the feeling of accomplishment I had! Everything was amplified by the hope that my contribution would benefit the Forensic Identification discipline and eventually allow me to be recognized in the field for my research. I always wanted to leave my (finger)mark on the forensic identification field! 😉
Finally, the crime scene. I remember being called to a crime scene for a murder case where we had to find fingermarks using fluorescence. It was the kind of murder where the investigation has no trail to follow and relies entirely on finding fingermarks. So we used multiple wavelengths on the scene to search for fingermarks having an inherent fluorescence. We found some: some only visible with UV, others only with the laser. We were very happy! As the surface of the exhibit seemed to respond very well, we decided to chemically treat the latter with cyanoacrylate and Rhodamine 6G to see if we could find some more… We found 4. What was great in this case, is that some prints were visible only with UV, others with laser, while the chemical was developing new ones, without developing the ones we already had found! A brilliant demonstration of the power of the sequential processing of evidence. The story also ends well for that matter, since the fingermarks identified a culprit.
Do you have any advice for those seeking a career in your field of work?
Going into this field is very difficult in Canada, since there is a pretty low number of positions for civilians and scientists. But if it’s really what you want to do, make sure you do all you can to work in this amazing field of expertise. If you’re not geographically restricted, consider looking for employment in other countries. The USA, for example, is always looking for good scientists to join police forces and usually ask for a science degree.
If you’re a forensic scientist (academic or industry) or a crime scene investigator and would like to be part of this series of interviews, get in touch by emailing locardslabblog[at]gmail.com.