Police forensics under the microscope

How does a police officer train to become a forensics specialist?

​The College of Policing's Harperley Hall is home to the world's leading forensic training college. Officers from the UK and abroad, including Australia, America and the Middle East, are put thorough their paces during courses which cover everything from crime scene management to fingerprinting, footwear identification and blood pattern analysis.

The facility was opened in the 1950s - more than 30 years before DNA evidence was first used by police - and has evolved to keep up with the fast pace of technological advances in forensics.

When students first went through the doors of Harperley Hall, they would have learned the art of taking fingerprints and carrying out the painstaking task of analysing them. While the technique is still valid, police can now scan the prints into a laptop at the scene of a crime and look for matches with convicted criminals and suspects within minutes.

Today the centre has a purpose-built street complete with shops, a diner and pub, to allow officers to train in a controlled environment. It includes vehicles involved in mocked-up crimes ranging from a break-in to gunshots fired at a car door.

Lifelike dummies are used to resemble victims following a range of incidents from murder and sexual assault to suicide and accidental death.

The centre's location in rural Durham also allows forensic trainers to use woodland on the 10.5-acre site to recreate decomposing bodies, to train the future crime scene investigators to solve some of the most complex of cases.

How does someone train to become a forensics specialist?

John has been a serving officer for 10 years and decided to take the leap into forensics.

Good communication skills are essential and an understanding of the wider investigation process is also a real advantage.

However, to become a forensic practitioner, John will need to learn a new set of technical skills, which can be done through one of the learning programmes offered by the College.

The College forensic learning programmes cover roles such as Crime Scene Investigator, Fingerprint Identification Officer/Expert, Forensic Laboratory Officer and Footwear Officer/Specialist.

How do I train to work as a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI)?

After successfully securing a role as a CSI, John would enrol on the CSI Learning Programme. This would involve the completion of a series of pre-course workbooks to start establishing a forensic knowledge base and to build his understanding of the processes in place within his force.

An intensive five-week course would follow, which would develop the core technical and investigative skills required to carry out the role at volume crime scenes. Technical skills include photography, fingerprint powdering, and recovery of trace evidence, DNA and footwear marks.

On completion of the course, John would spend approximately six months collating a portfolio of evidence that demonstrates competence against the National Occupational Standards (NOS) for the role.

He could then look at progressing to the level of a CSI, attending serious and major crime scenes. This involves a four-week course that builds knowledge and skills to the level required to work at scenes of more complex and impactive investigations.

On 24 June the centre was beamed out to more than 1.2 million viewers when it was showcased on BBC's Crimewatch Roadshow. The team at Harperley Hall created mock crime scenes which allowed journalist and presenter Sian Lloyd (pictured) to get involved with the training. The BBC has uploaded the programme on its Crimewatch Roadshow website.

This article appears in the July 2014 edition of our newsletter - why not subscribe?

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