The Risks of Doing Forensics on the Cheap

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Photo by Vitalka Wilson/World Skills UK via Flickr

With the demise of the internationally renowned public sector UK Forensic Science Service in 2012 came the promulgation and growth of a new competitive marketplace.

Private sector companies working in a hastily drawn up framework for forensic science provision were invited into rounds of competitive tendering that were driven by the police service.

These were based on the notion that the Forensic Science Service had been inefficient, delivering forensic science analysis in an expensive and untimely manner.

However, high-quality forensic science provision was always costly and the British police service wanted to operate in a new culture of cost reduction and value for money. They wanted full control of their spending and that is understandable.

But with the rise of competitive tendering the provision of forensic science was commoditized. Specific work and tests in each forensic discipline were itemized and bid for by the companies.

The police forces guaranteed specific volumes of testing to the companies in order to get the best prices and the police began to dictate to the companies what tests they required against the ‘pricelist’ when potential forensic evidence had been collected from crime scenes.

The police service also determined to undertake certain basic scientific tasks themselves. By bringing these in house they could further save money and reduce the burden on their budgets.

This new and cheaper approach has been in place for nine years and has been subjected to comment by critics and supporters alike. In 2018 one major player in the new UK forensic market, Key Forensic Services Ltd, collapsed. They had won a significant share of the available forensic science work, but couldn’t sustain the service.

Many working in forensic science warned that the quality of expert analysis and interpretation would be lost as scientists would no longer be able to refer their findings to colleagues across overlapping disciplines in order to provide a holistic approach to obtaining the best evidence from the forensic samples presented.

This would inevitably lead to the loss of the opportunities for contextualization of the evidential findings for use in the justice process.

In addition the fragmentation of the industry has seen many expert scientists set up their own niche services and struggle to get regular work. Some left the industry altogether.

There has never been a properly constituted academic analysis of what these changes have meant to UK forensic science provision and what the impact has been.

Until now.

In a comprehensive and thorough six-year research programme, Dr Karen Richmond from the University of Copenhagen undertook a long and objective period of fieldwork and analysis.

Interviews were conducted not only with forensic scientists, but also with allied institutional agents including senior professional members of the judiciary of England and Wales, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Office of the Forensic Science Regulator, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Royal Society, the UK Accreditation Service, the Metropolitan Police Service, and the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences.

Her findings are both startling and important. They point to a thoroughly dysfunctional marketplace that has failed to harmonize the array of tests and reports in a way that should have led to the configuration of a homogenous service from each provider to all police forces.

Instead, the exact opposite has occurred, with very different requirements being demanded of providers by each separate police force so that scientists are “reinventing the wheel” for each customer.

Furthermore the scientific strategy for the analysis and reporting of forensic samples is set by the police with little or no scientific training. They will perhaps have undertaken Crime Scene Investigation training, but that doesn’t allow for the best objective understanding of what might work or not work in each case.

This can result in loss of opportunities as the scientists are often not able to question the police requirements and cannot make their own investigative assessments of what the best science is to be applied.

There has been a market push and perhaps an over reliance on DNA testing as the “go to” science, to the detriment of other scientific processes such as the searching for, collection of,  and analysis of fibers.

Indeed there are a host of critical findings that reflect negatively on the way the market has developed. Dr Richmond says in her report:

The data demonstrates not only how government agencies failed to adapt to the introduction of competitive tendering, but also how the market which developed in their wake began to influence, distort and reconfigure the very processes of forensic strategy-setting and analysis.

She goes on to say:

The results offer a compelling insight into the ways in which these agents have adapted to changing relations, shifting priorities, and the imposition of market logics within a sector unaccustomed to the obtrusions of economic efficiency and external regulation.

After nine years there are continuing tensions and frustrations. They are keenly felt by scientists and the companies providing forensic science services. These should not now be set aside as just another academic study.

Dr Richmond’s work has shown that in hindsight the implementation of the decision to restructure forensic science provision to the UK criminal justice system was flawed.

It perhaps should have never left the public sector in the first place, where in a government agency cost considerations would have remained secondary to the need to provide comprehensive criminal justice outcomes.

The US Perspective

In a recent column for The Crime Report “ Why We Need a Federal Forensic Science Agency,” I argued that forensic science provision in the U.S. cannot continue to support unvalidated and often junk science in its courts to the detriment of a fair and just criminal justice system. This remains the case.

However the UK seems to have also got things wrong. Not in the quality of work that is done by the forensic providers, as this is regulated and accredited to international standards;  but in the way that the science has been dumbed down by the police.

The emphasis on treating science as a sequence of commoditized testing processes has led to the inability of scientists to properly engage their expertise in support of criminal justice in the way they did when forensic science was delivered as a public sector service.

If the U.S. is eventually to embrace a nationally mandated federal forensic science system in the future,  then there are clear lessons to be learned from Dr Richmond’s research.

The application of forensic science to the justice process should be led by independent experts, working in a quality controlled environment, to provide the best evidence for the courts. A system that allows the police to control the work of scientists, without having recourse to the expert opinion of those scientists before the work is carried out, should not be the way to go.

Gareth Bryon

Gareth Bryon

Indeed the UK police approach to seeking quick results cheaply from forensic science may one day mean that the best opportunities to secure a conviction in a high-profile case may go out of the window, because other potential evidence is overlooked or not considered based on cost.

This couldn’t happen in the U.S., could it?

Additional Reading: Backlog Causes Delays in Baltimore Crime Lab

Gareth Bryon is a former Detective Chief Superintendent who worked as a senior officer in the South Wales Police and the British Transport Police, where he led major crime investigation and forensic science services for over 30 years.

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