Interview with Biological & Forensic Anthropologist Dr Geraldine Fahy

Geraldine Fahy

What is your current job role and what does this involve?

I am a lecturer in Biological/Forensic Anthropology in the Skeletal Biology Research Centre, University of Kent. During term-time I teach all aspects of Human Evolution from early fossil hominins, hunter-gatherer societies, to methodologies used to reconstruct the last common ancestor (LCA). I also convene a forensic anthropology module where I teach forensic taphonomy, excavation and recovery, disaster victim identification and biometric identification. We are in the process of developing our MSc Forensic Osteology and Field Recovery Methods which will run from Sept. 2017 which is very exciting!

What initially attracted you to this field of work?

I wanted to become a forensic anthropologist from the first time I read Kathy Reich’s debut novel, Deja Dead. Of course, fiction is fiction however by the time I started researching the topic and where I could study forensics, I loved the topic for itself, for the science and so continued. I have turned more towards analytical chemistry techniques and human evolution in recent years; however, my interest in forensics continues, and my education and employment background remains relevant, as most forensic science disciplines, including forensic anthropology, have solid foundations in science, with the ‘forensic’ aspect being related to chain-of-custody maintenance and courtroom presentation.

Can you tell us about the research you are currently involved in at the University of Kent?

I conduct research into dietary ecology and subsistence patterns of past populations using stable isotope analysis. I have previously conducted such research on a population of wild Western chimpanzees, as correlates for the LCA; however, my current research focuses on medieval dietary reconstruction from East and West Europe. I am also currently involved in a project looking at the effects of bone turnover rates on stable isotope values and am currently investigating potential stable isotope methodologies that may have future use in forensic identification.

Has your work led you to be involved in any legal investigations? If so, what did this involve?

I worked as a forensic anthropology intern at the Netherlands Forensic Institute where I looked at decomposition of muscle tissue following submersion in water for my MSc thesis. Following this I worked as a forensic anthropology intern for the UN Mission in Kosovo in 2007 where I assisted in the identification and repatriation of victims of the Yugoslavian conflict. Subsequently I worked as an Associate Forensic Expert for the UN International Independent Investigation Commission in Lebanon which involved evidence collection and cataloging in the investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and others.

Do you have any words of advice for students wishing to pursue a career in forensic anthropology?

Do your research but don’t be disheartened if you end up doing a different degree initially; as long as it’s not totally removed (e.g. doing a business degree when you then want to work in science) it is possible to get where you want to go without a straight path. I would advise doing as many unpaid internships as possible, this is where you gain valuable experience and make contacts for the future. Importantly realise that what you want can change as the years go by and this is fine….you may start out wanting to work constantly in the field, but then realise this is not viable for you and end up in a lab or a classroom, just go with whatever feels right for you.

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Interview with Forensic Anthropologist Dr Anna Williams

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What is your current job role and what does this involve?

I am Principal Enterprise Fellow (equivalent to Reader or Associate Professor) in Forensic Anthropology at the University of Huddersfield. My time is divided between teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, supervising MSc and PhD students, and doing research and forensic casework. I teach on the BSc/MSci Forensic and Analytical Sciences, and the MSc in Forensic Anthropology and the MSc in Risk, Disaster and Environmental Management. Part of my role is also to engage with the public and communicate our research to lay people, including school children, interested adults and other scientists. I regularly present at academic conferences, local interest groups, Science Festivals and public events. This year, I am presenting at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. I have also been featured in several TV science documentaries, and regularly consult for TV shows like Bones, Rosewood and Silent Witness. I also write a blog about my adventures in forensic anthropology.

What initially attracted you to this field of work?

I did a mixture of sciences and humanities at A Level and could never decide which I liked best, so I chose Archaeology and Anthropology as my first degree. There, I was fascinated by what you could tell about individuals by their skeletal remains, for example about hominid evolution. Then I discovered the burgeoning science of Forensic Anthropology, on a short course at Bradford University, and that was it, I was hooked! I love how you can glean all sorts of information from the smallest pieces of evidence. I have always loved logic problems, and forensic anthropology offers the most exciting puzzles. The fact that it is often confronting, challenging and disturbing, and could help to bring criminals to justice, just serves to add to its appeal for me.

Can you tell us about the research you are currently involved in at the University of Huddersfield?

I specialise in decomposition and taphonomy (the study of how bodies decay in different environments). To do this, I use an outdoor decomposition laboratory. I lead a research group currently doing research into the gases given off by decomposing cadavers (we use pigs that have died of natural causes), and comparing that to the efficiency of police dogs that are specially trained to find dead bodies. We’re also looking at how skin colour changes in surface or water environments, and trying to find ways to improve our estimation of post-mortem interval and post-mortem submersion interval. Other research is focussed on the taphonomic changes that occur to bone and teeth in hot, arid environments. I am also running a citizen science project in order to improve age estimation of unknown individuals from dental eruption. There is a webpage and online questionnaire for anyone who would like to help us build a large, modern set of tooth eruption data to see if dental eruption ages are changing.

Aside from research, are you often involved in police casework, and what does this typically involve?

Sometimes I am asked by the police to attend crime scenes or mortuaries to undertake forensic examination of decomposed or skeletonised remains. They can be either the victims of crime, or the remains of people who have gone missing. I will determine whether they are human or animal, and if they are human, I will estimate the age at death, sex, stature and ancestry of the individual(s), and try to say something about their lifestyle, disease, injury and how they died. I work in conjunction with forensic archaeologists and odontologists, as well as pathologists, to reach an identification. I also do consultancy for forensic science providers and, on occasion, a mass disaster company that helps to ‘clean up’ after disaster and repatriate the victims. I am involved in disaster victim identification and the Emergency Operations Centre.

The existence of so-called ‘body farms’ has sparked great interest in the media. Are there plans to establish such a facility in the UK? What are the primary challenges associated with this?

I believe that Human Taphonomy Facilities, or ‘Body Farms’ as they have become colloquially known, are vital for the advancement of forensic science. We owe all that we know already about human decomposition to the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee, and there is so much more to learn. We need to know how human conditions like diabetes, cancer, smoking and drug use affect our decomposition, which is something we cannot learn from experimenting with dead pigs. Unfortunately, a lot of the data generated by the ‘Body Farms’ in the USA and Australia are not directly relevant to forensic cases in the UK or Europe, because of the different climate, insects and scavengers. The UK is falling behind the USA and Australia by not having one of these outdoor laboratories where vital decomposition research can be done on donated cadavers. There was an attempt to establish a Body Farm in the UK in 2011, but this failed for a variety of financial and political reasons. I think the main obstacles to getting one set up in the UK are lack of funding, public awareness and rivalry between academic institutions. I hope that, in the near future, we will be able to create a facility where researchers, academics and practitioners will be able to work together to improve methods of search and recovery, post-mortem interval estimation and identification of human remains.

Do you have any words of advice for students wishing to pursue a career in forensic anthropology?

Forensic anthropology is a very competitive field, and there aren’t many jobs out there, so you need to be dedicated and determined. It can also be hard work and distressing, so decide carefully whether you want to pursue a career in it. The best way to make yourself stand out from the crowd of other applicants to jobs is to have experience, so try to get as much hands-on experience as you can. This doesn’t have to be forensic (although, of course, that would be preferable), but can be in archaeological units or museums or hospitals (or even zoos), somewhere where you can deal with human (or animal) bodies.

Images from Research

These pictures show the progression of decomposition in a small (10kg) pig. The first picture shows the pig in the fresh stage, when post-mortem interval was less than 24 hours. The second picture shows the pig in the active decay stage, 25 days later. The brown froth is decomposition fluid that has been agitated by the movement of maggots. The body was bloated with decomposition gases, but has now collapsed, and the intestines are escaping. The skin has desiccated, but the hair is still intact. The skin has darkened and become leathery in texture. The bones are becoming detached from the body.

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Surface pig 1, day 0

pig2

Surface pig 1, day 25

 

Website: www.forensicanna.com

Twitter: @Bonegella

Also, you can follow #scentofdeath and #teamtaphonomy

Interview with Digital Forensics Expert Angus Marshall

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What is your current job role and what does this typically involve?

I’m an independent forensic computing consultant. Some people would sum it up as “gun for hire”, but the reality is that I get involved in a range of casework for law enforcement, defence solicitors and many types of organisation. Most commonly, I get called in after the standard digital investigation work has been done, so computers & handsets have been imaged and data extracted, but someone is needed to provide expert testimony or to help interpret what’s been recovered. My background in Internet computing is proving more and more useful as most devices now contain data which relates to online activities and working out what’s happened at the other end of the connection is often more important than what’s been found.

Of course, I still get situations where I am, effectively, the first responder and have to do the data capture myself too. Fortunately, I have a good selection of tools and techniques available. My links to academia and DEVCE are a big help there too, as it means I’m able to keep abreast of new ideas.

I also advise on policy matters and help set standards through my membership of the BSI Information Security group and the Forensic Science Regulator’s working group on digital evidence, and am involved with the KTN’s Forensic Science Steering Group where we advise on research topics in Forensic Science.

How did you come to be involved in this area of work?

Largely by accident. I used to be a full-time academic at the Centre for Internet Computing. One of our servers was hacked and it fell to me to investigate it. I was persuaded to write that experience up and present it at a conference. One of the audience put me forward for inclusion on a national database of advisers for the police and a few weeks after that, I found myself helping with a missing persons case which turned out to be a pretty nasty murder. The evidence in that cases involved working out a suspect’s normal pattern of activities and showing that the pattern broke on the day the murder happened, amongst other things.

What do you think are some of the most challenging aspects of your line of work?

Understanding what the real requirements are. Pretty much everyone uses a computer in some form these days so they tend to ask for specific things to be done, often what they think they’d do themselves, rather than asking for help to solve the real problems. My usual approach is to start with something like “OK, I can do that, but tell me why you think it needs to be done” and moving on from there. We often end up doing something totally different which provides a much better answer to the question that needs to be addressed.

How has the field of digital forensics changed during the time you have been involved?

Handhelds have to be the answer to that. There’s been such an explosion in the adoption of smartphones and other personal technology. Everyone has at least one, and frequently several, devices which can tell us a lot about them and their behaviours. It means we have a lot more data to try to extract and process in the limited time available.

We aren’t seeing the predicted downturn in use of conventional computers, though – so we’re dealing with increased data storage on them, and more use of the “cloud” to share data between devices as well.

Has the field of digital forensics been affected by the major changes to forensic science services in the UK in recent years?

To be honest, the digital field was never as centralised as some of the disciplines were. Most, if not all, police forces had, and still have, their own labs, backed up by a few large private sector organisations and lots more smaller providers. What we are seeing is increased pressure due to falling budgets and increasing amounts of data. The other thing that’s causing problems is the regulatory framework. There’s an inherent resistance to taking on the perceived “extra work” required to achieve accreditation and if labs don’t act now they’re going to be in trouble. Having been close to the work, and editing a couple of related ISO standards, I know that it looks bad, but the actions required can result in significant efficiency gains, cost savings and improvements in the quality of evidence.

Do you have any advice for those seeking a career in digital forensic science?

If you enjoy a challenge – go for it! But don’t get fixated on law enforcement as the only option. Our methods are used widely in corporate environments too, especially in dealing with fraud, employee misconduct, network attacks, e-discovery for civil litigation and a whole range of other activities. The law enforcement side of things is really quite a small sector and others could be easier to get into and more rewarding in the long run.

Website: http://www.n-gate.net and http://www.devce.org

Twitter: https://twitter.com/marshalla99

Angus’ book, Digital Forensics: Digital Evidence in Criminal Investigations, is available on Amazon.

 

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.

Interview with Forensic Entomologist Susan Gruner

SG2

What is your expertise within forensic science and what does this type of job role typically involve?

Forensic entomology can be divided into three groups: stored-product, urban and medico-legal (or medico-criminal) entomology. I specialize in the field of medicolegal forensic entomology. Generally speaking, forensic entomologists can estimate a postmortem interval (PMI) or time since death based upon the presence (or lack thereof) of insects collected on or near a body. Certain families of insects arrive in a predictable manner on corpses, especially the calliphorid flies (blow flies). Based upon the ages of specimens collected, a PMI can be estimated. Age of the specimens is directly related to the temperatures that the insects are experiencing; the higher the temperature (obviously to a certain limit), the faster they grow.

In a best-case scenario, when a body is found, a forensic entomologist should be called and he or she would collect and process the insect evidence. The second best scenario would be that properly trained law enforcement personnel would collect the insect evidence and then send it to a forensic entomologist for processing.

On occasion, forensic entomologists have to testify in court, just as would any other expert witness. The testimony usually focuses on time of death, but not always. Sometimes a body may have been moved and the calliphorids present can sometimes help determine such a thing. There was a case where a woman was murdered in a parking lot in the city of Jacksonville (Duval County). Her body was dumped in rural Clay County, but not before those city flies had a chance to deposit eggs on her body. The trial was held in Duval County.

Calliphorid female flies are attracted to areas of trauma on a body, where they will deposit eggs. Sometimes the trauma is not noticeable to the naked eye, but can be determined during autopsy. But forensic entomologists know that flies congregate and deposit eggs on areas of trauma on a body.

In September 2006, I received a call from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office that the body of an elderly man had been found in a culvert off of I-10, a major highway. I did not know what a culvert was until this case (for those who do not know, it is a tunnel that carries water under a road). It was necessary to climb down a steep angled wall to make an entomological collection. When I reached the body, I noticed that the man had hundreds of calliphorid larvae around his neck despite a lack of visible wounds or bruised skin. I told the detectives that the medical examiner would find the cause of death to be strangulation. I got a lot of strange looks from the detectives that day, but the autopsy showed the man had indeed been strangled to death.

I guess you could say that being a forensic entomologist requires getting very dirty, too. The first time I ever returned from a death scene, my husband had to have the car detailed because it smelled like human decomposition. But as horrific as it sounds, I continue to be fascinated by what calliphorid larvae can reveal about death and decomposition and how they can help solve crimes.

What led you to become involved in forensic entomology?

I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, and one of the ways to get into vet school is to major in entomology. On the first day of my first entomology class, the professor handed out an article about the Body Farm in Tennessee. I changed my mind about wanting to be a veterinarian that instant.

What in particular was the focus of your PhD research in forensic entomology?

The main focus of my doctoral research was to study the life cycle of the forensically important calliphorid, Chrysomya megacephala (the oriental latrine fly). The main focus of my research was to study their development rates at different ambient temperatures.

Historically, calliphorid development rates have been studied by placing a few hundred calliphorid eggs in a cup (or cups) in a rearing chamber set to a certain temperature. The time is monitored as the larvae grow through three larval stages, a puparial stage, and then emerge as adults.

But the problem with testing in this manner is that calliphorid masses generate heat. Even a small amount of maggots can generate heat above ambient, thus the set chamber temperature is not really the temperature that the growing larvae/pupae are experiencing. For the development research, I used 10 larvae per container; an amount not capable of generating heat above ambient temperature.

SG

Liver is a standard feeding substrate for calliphorid larvae in colony.  But the small amount of liver needed for only 10 larvae per Petri dish dried up quickly, killing the larvae, so I developed a liver agar feeding substrate that would not dry up1. Then I was able to study precisely how the larvae developed at eight different temperatures.

This was grueling work in which larvae were checked at 4-hour intervals 24/7 for most of the duration of the development research, which took 15 months. As I had no funding to hire anyone to help me, I trained my husband to do it. He took the day shift, going back and forth to the lab every 4 hours as I tried to get some sleep. I spent nights (from 9 PM to 9 AM) in the lab. I was so sleep-deprived that it would have been dangerous for me to drive back and forth during the middle of the night.

There were times when we had to examine every larva individually to determine stage. This required looking at the anal spiracles of a larva under a microscope with a gentle but steady hand. During all those months of research when we were sleep-deprived and miserable, we never squished or killed a larva. I am very proud of that.

I also studied different size maggot masses and their respective temperatures as they grew in age, size and volume. And finally, I studied different models that could potentially be used to calculate age of a larva (or larvae). Most forensic entomologists use a linear model to estimate a PMI, but insect development is not linear, especially that of calliphorids.

Do you believe there are any common misconceptions surrounding this field of work?

There are too many to list, but I will name a few.

  1. It is nothing even remotely similar to anything seen on TV.
  2. Sadly, I know of only one person who is a full-time forensic entomologist in the USA (in Texas). Most who received their M.S. and PhDs studying forensic entomology are not teaching or practicing forensic entomology. They may take a case or testify in court on occasion, but that is rare.
  3. Despite the potential importance of collecting insect evidence at death scenes, it is not done. The vast majority of detectives, crime scene technicians, etc., have no idea how to collect insect evidence and forensic entomologists rarely get called to process the insect evidence at death scenes.

Do you think that there are any significant gaps in research in forensic entomology?

Yes. I would say the biggest problem in this field is the poor quality of research, especially when it comes to studies regarding development rates of forensically important insects. Most (almost 80%) of the manuscripts published in peer-reviewed journals in the past 30 years lack replication and have poor experimental design. This is an embarrassment to the science and needs to change. But, there are many dedicated scientists in this field who are trying to do good work.

Finally, how do you feel about the extent to which forensic entomology is harnessed in legal investigations?

Forensic entomology is overlooked much of the time. Collection of insect evidence is not difficult, but as I mentioned above, such evidence is rarely–if ever–collected.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Entomophila

 

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.

This is Part 6 of our series of interviews with forensic professionals.

Interview Series Part 1 – Interview with Forensic Identification Scientist Alexandre Beaudoin

Interview Series Part 2 – Interview with Forensic Expert Robert Green OBE

Interview Series Part 3 – Interview with Forensic Expert & Consultant Gareth Bryon

Interview Series Part 4 – Interview with Forensic Identification Specialist Donna Brandelli

Interview Series Part 5 – Interview with Forensic Video Analyst David Spreadborough

Interview Series Part 6 – Interview with Forensic Accountant Sundaraparipurnan Narayanan

Interview with Forensic Accountant Sundaraparipurnan Narayanan

SN FA

What is your current job role and what does this involve?

I handle the forensic service line for SKP Business Consulting LLP, in India. I advise clients/corporates on fraud management/prevention strategy in the nature of setting up an in-house fraud control unit or support with operational fraud matrices in the nature of fraud analytics or fraud risk assessments, and assist in ethics or compliance investigations. With the increase in fraud, corporates are increasingly setting up in-house fraud control units to manage the risk of frauds. This includes defining the roles & responsibilities of the unit, exhibiting independence, developing a robust concern handling process and measuring effectiveness of the operations at appropriate intervals. Operational fraud management includes supporting corporates with fraud risk assessments and specific dashboards on fraud control. Supporting ethics and compliance investigations is primarily focussed towards gathering evidence from digital and documentary sources and conducting interviews of identified individuals (employees and third parties) with reference to the issue in question.

What kind of education/training do you need to work in this area?

You need to have an eye for details and you need to develop the capability of noticing inconsistencies and identifying patterns. These are enablers in this field. At the base, for the given nature of job, one should have a strong background in accounting and internal controls. Certified Fraud Examiner is a certification offered by ACFE, a non-profit working towards enhancing education relating to fraud. This certification helps resources to understand the essentials better.

How did you end up working in forensic accounting?

I was influenced by the way my mentor (Mr. Shanmuga Sundaram) worked on internal audit/internal control reviews, where he was able to spot complex frauds based on his unorthodox approach. Over time I realized that I had an interest in fraud investigations and wanted to explore that as a career. I joined Ernst & Young in their fraud investigation service line to learn and over a period the work experience supported by subsidiary reading has helped me in this field.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of this kind of work?

Gathering evidence is always challenging. In one of the reviews that I led, the issue in question was on the fraudulent manipulation of IT application data at the backend. The review involved gathering of specific traces of evidence from the logs and identifying inconsistencies. It also required exploring newer tools/techniques including wireshark attack or specific backup protocols to ensure that evidence was secured for subsequent analysis. These measures helped in concluding the investigation.

Similarly in another review, the instance of fraudulent conduct was identified in Japan. Investigation in Japan with known language constraints was challenging. We had to conduct interviews of the suspects with translators around.

How do you think this field of work could be improved?

Currently the technology is maturing in this field with digital forensics and analytics becoming more prominent than before. I believe that technological influence can change the playing field for the service in the decade to come. A move from service to solutions on fraud management also will be a game changer in the years to come.

Finally, do you have any advice for those seeking a career in forensic accounting?

My 3 points of suggestions to people joining forensic accounting are:

  1. Remember you are not a super human. You can gather only those evidences that are available, extractable and representable at the court of law. Hence be clear with the evidence that you can gather.
  2. Spend time learning. Learning gives a broader perspective of gathering evidence.
  3. Embrace technology. It will help you, add value to the field of work over time and bring in a change.

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.

This is Part 6 of our series of interviews with forensic professionals.

Interview Series Part 1 – Interview with Forensic Identification Scientist Alexandre Beaudoin

Interview Series Part 2 – Interview with Forensic Expert Robert Green OBE

Interview Series Part 3 – Interview with Forensic Expert & Consultant Gareth Bryon

Interview Series Part 4 – Interview with Forensic Identification Specialist Donna Brandelli

Interview Series Part 5 – Interview with Forensic Video Analyst David Spreadborough

Interview with Forensic Video Analyst David Spreadborough

DS

What is your field of expertise and what does working in this area involve?

I am a Forensic Video Analyst. In short, the forensic analysis of video involves the scientific examination, comparison and/or evaluation of video in legal matters. That though really only tells half the story. Video now comes from a multitude of sources and probably only a quarter of those could be classed as standardized. Most have some sort of proprietary nature, designed by the brand or manufacturer of a specific product. You probably think immediately of Video from surveillance systems; CCTV. However, there is also personal recording devices such as smart phones, digital cameras, body worn video and dash-cams. The majority of these are now digital and sit within the category of Digital Multimedia Evidence (DME). With CCTV, most still actually start off as an analogue video signal from an analogue camera and then the digitization gets done further down the line.

Many people have attempted to guess how many different types of digital video there are, with figures stretching from 3000 – 5000! As you can imagine, this then means that every job starts as research. Manufacturers of CCTV systems can change the format of their recording every time they upgrade that model of Digital Video Recorder. Same make and model number, but who knows how the digital video is encoded, stored and then decoded for playback.

It is imperative that the digital data is dealt with correctly. If not, it’s like the contamination of a piece of traditional evidence. If it is contaminated, any interpretation and/or enhancement of that footage could be questioned. Acquisition of the media comes first and this can be the most challenging part when it is stored inside a proprietary Digital Video Recorder. You can’t just ‘pull the drive’ and extract the data like Computer Forensics. Many machines don’t even store the data in a standard way. Then after acquisition, the playback and processing of that data is a minefield of contamination opportunities. If the video is processed incorrectly then the possibilities could be limited.

Identifying the correct method of acquisition, in order to preserve the integrity of the digital data is the start of my job. I can then ensure that it can be used effectively. From here comes the interpretation but I need to understand how it was originally captured and encoded. If I am to make a decisions based on what was recorded, I have to take these factors into consideration. To assist in my analysis I may need to conduct restoration and/or enhancement of the footage using digital image processing techniques. When the video has been understood and processed within a forensic workflow, I am able to prepare that footage for comparative analysis or presentation. All of this has to be conducted in a manner that is repeatable and acknowledged by the community.

How did you come to be involved in this line of work?

I had been a Police Officer for 12 years, 6 in the Met and then 6 in Cheshire. As a tutor constable, I became frustrated over the methods and processes involved when dealing with CCTV evidence. As a result I put forward a suggestion to my Divisional DI with a solution of how CCTV could be dealt with, not only more effectively, but with higher evidential integrity. I already had some understanding of digital video so the initial stages were made a little easier. Within a few weeks, one of the first Divisional CCTV Units in the Country was started. That was back in 2003, and although technology has brought about huge change and increased our capabilities, the reasons why I started that unit remain. With the increased reliance on video evidence, but with limited budget and resources, those reasons are actually more important today.

What do you think is the most common misconception about your field of work?

“It’s just a Video”.

“Don’t do it that way, it takes too long”.

“Don’t worry about it, it’s only a DVD”.

“Just press, ‘Print Screen'”.

Senior Officers and Managers see how easy it is to stick a dancing cat on YouTube and then, for some unknown reason, apply that logic to evidence. Evidence that is controlled by guidelines and law. You can’t cut corners with evidence. The misconception comes from how easily video and images can be manipulated. It is the analyst’s responsibility however to ensure that the media is interpreted correctly and all processing is completed adhering to the rules of evidence. When corners are cut in order to speed things up and balance the spreadsheet, that’s when things can go wrong. It’s not just a picture or a video. It is evidence and should be treated as such.

When CCTV is dealt with correctly, the value stretches throughout the Criminal Justice System. From recognition intelligence through to impactive evidence used to exonerate or convict. I have heard some managers class CCTV as ‘Low Yield’, referring to the fact that they regard the expense of a Forensic Imaging Unit as needless. It’s a classic case of ‘you get out what you put in’. If you don’t invest and use the full capabilities available, it’s common sense that you won’t see the results.

Do you think the field of forensic video analysis in the UK has been affected by the recent changes to forensic science services?

It was a really tough decision to leave the Police after 24 years of service. I did so though because I care. I cared about the quality of my work. I cared about doing it right. I cared about making the right decision. It’s only been a few months so it’s a little difficult for me to answer with personal experience.

What I can say though, is that in both the Police and private sector there is pressure now to ‘dumb it down’. Ensuring that more can be done for less. Rather than understanding what the evidence is, and how it should be processed, pressure is put on technicians to get the jobs done. I have seen countless examples where incorrect processing has been completed, resulting in images and video being presented that are not a true and accurate representation of the events captured by that camera. I have seen many comparative analysis reports where the images being used have not been created correctly according to the Digital Imaging Procedure. I have seen Video presented that has been acquired by methods not even mentioned in the Home Office Guidelines for Retrieval of CCTV.

Some of these issues end up causing further delays to an investigation. If I receive a disk from a solicitor, and am under instruction to analyze the footage, there is often disbelief when I re-contact to state that it is not the original evidence. They then have to request the original evidence and the whole process starts again. The introduction of standards in Forensic Video Analysis through ISO will help, but we are a long way off.

The majority of Forces invested when the FSS closed, ensuring that only the most complex or time consuming tasks required out-sourcing to the private sector. A few of the Forces, with experts in-house, were also able to make the correct decisions on out-sourcing as they knew the technical possibilities involved and the expected results. With current budgetary restraints within the legal system, this is reversing. Forces just have not got the money or the staff do the jobs anymore.

Do you think the specialty of forensic video analysis is currently being utilised to its full potential?

Not at all. Well, actually there are one or two places in the UK where it is given the respect, and then the funding, that it requires but there are many places where it is simply not possible to develop, due to a lack of joined up thinking. There are many facets to DME and Forensic Video Analysis. When a number of these get linked, then everybody wins. From reviewing CCTV during a major incident, the recovery of data, the use of Social media for intelligence… I could go on.

I go back to my answer earlier, when I stated that I have heard it called ‘Low Yield’. Think of a field of Barley. Left alone, it will produce a bad crop with a low yield. Invest the time and effort and you will get a good crop, with a high yield. To fully reach its potential, you need someone who knows what they are doing and is prepared to invest.

Do you have any advice for those wishing to follow your career path?

It’s an unknown world to most! People often think that video is just moved magically across networks and ‘it is what it is’. As a result, it’s one of those jobs that you don’t really know exist. It is also a very small, niche sector of Digital Forensics. All the kudos and media navigate to anything with Cyber and Security in the title… Forensic Video Analysis is tucked away! You do see the jobs advertised every now and again, within Police Forces and also within the Private Sector Forensic services.

Enthusiasm, a willingness to learn… and then learn some more, along with a ‘never give up’ attitude. Investigating proprietary video can be extremely frustrating. That was one of the reasons why I started my blog over 6 years ago. I needed a way to document some rather lengthy processes and in doing so help others. I strategically left the comments enabled so people could add in their solutions to problems. I quite often have to go back and carry on research with a file first encountered three years ago!

Always ask questions of the video. Look beyond the image to understand how that video was constructed. Only then will you be able to interpret that video correctly. Will the compression affect enhancement? If you don’t understand the compression – are you enhancing artefacts that were never present in the scene? A lot of young people now come to it through traditional computer forensics. Some people through digital imaging and photography. Whatever route is taken, never be afraid to ask for help. The worldwide community is pretty small but with some very great people. It is rare to come across something that someone else has not encountered before.

The career will take you from just attempting to get a video to play (easier said than done sometimes), through a multitude of tasks and requirements. You could end up doing 3D Laser scanning of scenes and overlaying the CCTV Footage with aerial footage from a drone. You could end up data carving huge amounts of video and reverse engineering the embedded timecodes. You could end up conducting advanced Digital Imaging techniques to enhance details in a video not originally view-able.

If you enjoy working with digital media and want to be challenged every day, then Forensic Video Analysis may be something to look at… (excuse the pun!).

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

FVA is now part of me. It’s who I am. It’s not just a job or a career…. it’s my passion. Every case is different and requires thinking. This is not in the ‘Push Button Forensics’ domain.  It’s been a pleasure being interviewed and I hope that it has opened up a few people’s eyes to the world of FVA.

Website: www.spreadys.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/spreadys

 

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.

This is Part 5 of our series of interviews with forensic professionals.

Interview Series Part 1 – Interview with Forensic Identification Scientist Alexandre Beaudoin

Interview Series Part 2 – Interview with Forensic Expert Robert Green OBE

Interview Series Part 3 – Interview with Forensic Expert & Consultant Gareth Bryon

Interview Series Part 4 – Interview with Forensic Identification Specialist Donna Brandelli

Interview with Forensic Expert Robert Green OBE

BG

What is your current job role and what does this involve?

I’m currently Director of Undergraduate Studies for the forensic science programmes at the University of Kent. The role involves helping to lead the forensic science programs in the School of Physical Sciences. My job is primarily one of teaching and I’m involved in the delivery of modules across all years. Additionally the role involves some administrative responsibilities in order to continue to develop the students’ experience at the University. My ambition is to develop students to the best of their abilities; to share with them the very latest news and events affecting forensic science and, above all to produce good quality graduates with a focus on employability. I hope that some prospective students will consider studying with us in Kent. I make sure that we make the most effective use of social media and have a very active Facebook page which I post to most days. Please try to take a look and perhaps like the page and maybe keep up-to-date with some of the events at home and abroad. The page can be accessed here and I hope you like some of the content.

What has been the highlight of your career to date?

I suppose it was being made an OBE for services to forensic science in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list of 2008. Although the finer detail of honours nominations are not shared with the recipients – I very much suspect it was perhaps for some of the work I lead whilst at the Home Office. This was looking at the so-called cold cases and using the most up-to-date DNA technology to resurrect these cases and bring closure to victims. I think that over 100 or so rapists were convicted by these and other initiatives which gives one a sense of immense satisfaction knowing that justice has been served. At the same time, we were able to develop good practice in this area and share this internationally. Working at the University of Kent provides a fabulous opportunity to share some of the good practices with the forensic scientists of the future. I hope you’ll take a look at our site, accessed here.

Additionally I am very proud of my Fellowship of the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences awarded in 2014. Having moved into academia, I’m particularly pleased we have been able to generate students’ involvement in their professional body and get them engaged from the beginning of their study. For example, at the University of Kent, we’re able to offer free membership of the professional body to all our students from year one all the way through their studies. This helps us to engage with the society and ensure that students are provided the opportunity to attend conferences and develop themselves as their studies progress. I think the block membership idea of engagement has been a highlight of my time on Council for the Chartered Society.

Conversely, what have been some of the biggest challenges?

Looking back – I think this would hark back to my time working operationally as a Crime Scene Manager. The work was incredibly demanding both in terms of its demands on family/social life and of course the very sensitive nature of the work itself. Please spare a thought for those who work operationally both in the laboratory setting and also at the crime scene. Whilst the work may appear glamorous and appealing – nevertheless it is immensely hard work and of course has to be conducted with immense precision and attention to detail if disasters are to be avoided. Thankfully I survived my operational period without any/too much drama but the saying I always recall was “… you’re only as good as your last job”. In these challenging times – particularly let’s not forget the forensic scientists working tirelessly in the laboratory; seldom gaining recognition but nevertheless absolutely vital to the effectiveness of our criminal justice system.

How do you feel the field of forensic science has changed throughout the time you have been involved in it?

This must really be the introduction of automated fingerprint databases and of course the DNA database in 1995. Looking back it’s hard to imagine the 1,000 or so crime scenes I examined personally each year and the seemingly low return on the ‘fingerprint investment’. Truthfully – at the end of each year I could honestly count a handful of good quality fingerprint identifications made under the manual system. The advent of automated fingerprint databases absolutely revolutionised this and of course made both volume crime and major crime examinations much more fruitful in terms of fingerprint identifications. Reflectively though, this significant ramp-up in throughput has not always been matched by the detective’s ability to convert these fingerprint identifications into offences that are detected. The volume of fingerprint identifications produced by fingerprint experts often outstrips the ability to ‘action’ these in real time. In this sense, one advancement has led to another challenge. In order to get a sense of the contribution forensic science brings to criminal justice; let’s just reflect for a moment on the NPIA study in (I think) 2009. This study examined murders in England and Wales between the years 2009 and 2010. The findings of this report suggested that the contribution of forensic science was significantly greater than had previously been reported. For example, DNA being used in more than 95% of murder enquiries; fingerprints used in greater than 72% of murder enquiries; footwear used in greater than 35% of murder enquiries. I really hope that the value of forensic science is not undervalued in our current age of shrinking police budgets and austerity.

The second of course has to be DNA and the significant advances in sensitivity. Sadly, where we once led the world in DNA technology we now, to some extent, lag behind. For example, only recently the UK has changed to the DNA 17 multiplex; just at the time some others are perhaps moving to more discriminating DNA chemistry. I recall how the early DNA test required DNA around the size of a 50p piece and of course many of the examinations we undertook at the time were not successful. Of course this doesn’t mean to say they cannot be revisited and the case reinvestigated. It’s interesting to reflect that the new DNA test requires around 80 cells which is in the order of 500 pg. of starting material. Perhaps just think of what this means for a moment. If we consider that a single sugar crystal is in the order of 1 milligram (mg). Dividing this by 1,000 would give us a microgram (µg), further dividing by 1,000 to give us a nanogram (ng) and further dividing this by 1,000 gives us a picogram (pg); a  far cry from the days of 50p piece. Of course this brings with it other challenges in terms of increased sensitivity and I hope these dramatic improvements will not be marred by poor crime scene practices leading to contaminated results.

Looking to the future one can’t fail to be impressed by the new Rapid Hit DNA technology. This self-contained and rapid DNA processing enables profiles to be turned around in around 90 minutes. This will undoubtedly revolutionise the speed at which DNA profiles can be obtained and perhaps enable samples to be searched within the custody time limits. Of course, this speedier DNA process will require matches to be actioned in real time and hence will bring some challenges for the police service.

Forensic science provisions in the UK have been under much debate since the closure of the FSS. What do you feel is the greatest issue in forensic science in the UK at present?

I’m not entirely sure it’s changed necessarily for the better. Formally I worked at the Forensic Science Service and hence appreciate, with pride, the contribution of all forensic scientists over the years. Accepting the economy of the age and of course without passing any judgement, we might nevertheless want to reflect a moment on this. The Forensic Science Service has been closed and I sense that we will not see the likes of this type of organisation again in the public sector – certainly in my lifetime. What’s done – is done but there is perhaps a concern that the shrinking forensic marketplace may ever increasingly make it less viable for some suppliers of forensic services. Likewise the access and availability to forensic testing from the defence perspective is perhaps a little worrying to say the least. In particular, fibre analysis is often seen as costly/unnecessarily when compared against other forensic science techniques. Nevertheless I can’t help but think we miss two major points here. The first of these is that we should never underestimate the exculpatory value of forensic science from the defence point of view. Depending upon the details of the case – the presence or absence of forensic material may support either the prosecution or defence. One might share some sense of unease that forensic submissions are put together (and of course paid for) primarily by the police service. Without doubt, colleagues in the ‘service’ do an outstanding job – protecting us all and keeping us safe. Nevertheless (as one who has had some responsibility for constructing these cases in the past) I wonder how eager I would have been to have submitted materials to the laboratory which might not be seen to further the prosecution.

Without wishing to be alarmist – the current situation might appear far from ideal. Accepting everything which I’ve said already about the tightness of police budgets – nevertheless my sense is that we may be sleepwalking towards a breakdown in the external market for forensic science provision. I feel that the decade may be marked by some significant miscarriages of justice based perhaps not on what is submitted for forensic testing but what isn’t or what is examined inappropriately. Naturally if the items are screened out (from the prosecutions perspective) then they are not submitted right from the very outset. Perhaps my advice to those regulating forensic science might be to look for what is not submitted as much as determining the quality of what is.

How do you feel about the amount of research being conducted in forensic fields of work?

Previously of course the FSS and others rather took the lead. Whilst there are some rather promising indications that research is continuing I think we have to deal with realities. Forensic providers in the UK may continue to find it difficult to fund research to the level we previously enjoyed. I think it’s unlikely to see them investing to the level previously. There are some green shoots here and there but nothing really which resembles the significant – several million pounds per annum budget we had perhaps become used to. Of course that doesn’t mean to say that research won’t continue both at home and abroad and time will tell I guess.

Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for those pursuing a career in forensic science?

I think two points sum it up. Firstly – be interested and secondly work hard. Try to have your career path mapped out to the best of your ability. I think it’s going to be ever increasingly important for students to have a good idea of what they want to do as early as possible. Not only are universities producing many good graduates each year but also job opportunities may not necessarily appear at once. Try not to be disappointed and pessimistic and keep trying if you want to pursue a career. You may find that you have to take a lesser role in order to get a shoo-in and so perhaps be a little realistic at least in the early days. Having decided what type of career path you are seeking to follow – choose a university course which will help you to get a foot in. For example, those seeking roles in forensic investigation may be drawn more to these types of courses. Those who would seek a more laboratory-based or traditional forensic science role would be best advised to choose a program with a good level of scientific content. Of course, those who seek roles wider afield (for example digital forensics) ought to choose the appropriate course to help them get their foot on the ladder.

Don’t underestimate how much you will have to do put into your study. Furthermore please don’t underestimate how hard you will have to work to pursue your ambition. It is achievable and within your grasp if you’re interested and prepared to put in the legwork and prepare for some frustration as you find your first job. Once in your role – work hard, be fascinated by the topic and all will be good.

Finally – try to engage with your professional body, namely the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences. Students gain massively by membership of their society – enabling them to attend conferences, keep abreast of recent events in the profession and perhaps begin to develop a professional understanding of what is happening both in academia and within the mainstream forensic science delivery. Perhaps you might want to begin by taking a look at the webpages and know that you will get far more out than you put in.

Good luck and best wishes

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.

This is Part 2 of our series of interviews with forensic professionals.

Interview Series Part 1 – Interview with Forensic Identification Scientist Alexandre Beaudoin