In Search of a Silver Bullet for a Unified Forensic Science System

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 In Search of a Silver Bullet for a Unified Forensic Science System

As a forensic scientist, how many times have you been frustrated by evidence collected from a crime scene? Be it why or how a sample was collected, decisions made at the crime scene—without a forensic scientist present—are irreversible and end up altering the course of the case.

The crime scene is a one-off opportunity to maximize the value of evidence, but forensic specialists are typically not present to do that very thing. That’s due to the siloed environment the United States currently operates in, with law enforcement, the crime scene, the laboratory and end users all existing in bubbles separate from one another.

“If these four components are siloed off from each other with minimal amount of communication, that doesn’t allow for the ideal delivery of forensic science services,” argued Rebecca Bucht, head of CSI services at NBI Forensic Science Laboratory (Finland), during a presentation at AAFS.

The U.S. is one of only a few nations whose criminal justice system operates in such a siloed environment. While there may not be a silver bullet for creating a more unified system, Bucht says the need for one has been recognized on a global scale and solutions are already being tested in other parts of the world.

In her research, Bucht has found there are two general approaches: one that addresses the challenges on a single agency level, while the second employs a broader, more strategic tactic.  

Forensic advisor

At the local level, the National Institute of Criminalistics and Criminology (NICC) in Belgium has had the most success with the creation of the Forensic Advisor/Case Coordinator position. The forensic advisor is responsible for improving communication between end users, police, forensic scientists and frontline forensic practitioners. Advisors must work with magistrates to develop the best strategy to support the investigation. For example, prior to lab submission, the forensic advisor assesses the potential probative value of different evidence using a “generalist approach” to forensic science.

In Belgium, the forensic advisor position is senior-level, requiring a college education in forensic science and specialty training. The same goes for Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and the UK. However, other jurisdictions have employed the forensic advisor position at the lower end of the scale—ultimately not having as much success and impact as the other countries. 

In a study comparing sexual assault cases investigated with and without a forensic advisor in Belgium, researchers found those handled by a forensic advisor resulted in far more convictions.

“The approach promotes a more effective use of forensic science and provides a potential return-on-investment in setting these solutions up,” said Bucht.

Crime scene-laboratory partnership

Meanwhile, Finland and Australia went in a different direction, employing a more holistic, strategic approach.

In Finland, the crime scene is the responsibility of local police and there is one national lab. Previously, the role of the lab was to provide analytical services for samples collected and submitted by the crime scene units. Now, however, there is movement toward a partnership between the crime scene and lab to jointly provide forensic services.

Even higher on the strategic ladder, the Australian Defense Force is working to implement what they call a “Forensic Science System of Systems.”

The approach is characterized by the partnership of three main systems—criminal justice, law enforcement and military—with supporting subsystems of forensic science, forensic intelligence and biometrics. Quality management and crime scene loom over the entire system in parallel.

“This holistic approach recognized that crime scene is an integral part of the system, and the quality management system is built to not only support the forensic laboratory but to support the entire systems approach,” said Bucht.