Police forensics: the inside story
From footwear identification prints to the digital analysis of cyber crime, the world of police forensics is rapidly evolving
A vacuum metal deposition (VMD) machine which uses vapourised metals to enhance fingerprints on materials such as plastics
The burglars of Birmingham all wear Nike Air Max trainers. Within minutes of being called to a domestic break-in in the north of the city, Nick Parker, a forensic scene investigator, has dusted down the floor with magnesium powder and identified two sets of offending footprints. “You need fashionable footwear to burgle people’s houses,” he says wryly, crouched uncomfortably between the dining table, dresser and patio doors as he brushes away excess powder to sharpen the image. Soon, the characteristic pattern of squares emerges across the sole, together with a bow-shaped curve separating the ball of the foot from the heel. Parker knows that the criminals he tracks are particular about their appearance. When he’s called upon to confiscate suspects’ clothing, “it’s rare that you don’t open the wardrobe and see row after row of designer brands,” he says.Also at FT Weekend:
Parker, who started his career in the military, could not be more different from the ostentatiously fashionable criminals he describes. He has spent the past 23 years examining crime scenes and, like all investigators at West Midlands Police, wears a simple uniform of dark fleece, dark trousers and sturdy lace-up leather boots. FSIs, as they are known, find out what they’ll be doing the next day from watching the news the night before. As civilian police staff, they arrive at the scene only after warranted officers, paramedics and fire service personnel have torn through it, making arrests, dousing flames and tending to stricken bodies. Entering this aftermath, the investigators work with senior detectives to decide what evidence they need, before dusting, lifting, swabbing and photographing the traces left behind by offenders.
But in recent years, forensics has been forced out of the shadows. High-profile successes, such as the discovery of new DNA evidence in the murder of black London teenager Stephen Lawrence, have enabled historic convictions. At the same time, the profession — its profile raised by TV programmes such as Silent Witness and US equivalents CSI and NCIS — is facing a host of new difficulties. Forensics teams have suffered a disproportionate share of government cuts to police funding. Admittedly, dramatic falls in burglary and vehicle theft over the past decade have meant fewer crime scenes for FSIs to attend. However, these have been offset by sharp rises in online fraud and cyber crime, which demand new skills in digital analysis and preserving evidence from phones, tablets and laptops....MORE