Closure of the UK Forensic Science Service has been widely publicized in recent months: its effect on the criminal justice system, questions of the independence and impartiality of private sector experts, public confidence in forensic science, or its perception of the resultant forensic market as being low budget or worse, biased. Whilst these issues require consideration, my main concern relates to the huge loss of experience from the UK forensic market, and I’m taking this opportunity to give my personal view, direct from the front line.
I worked for the Forensic Science Service (FSS) for almost ten years. This time last month, I was a senior forensic scientist in the sexual offences team at the Chorley FSS laboratory in Lancashire. We dealt with the rape and sexual assault of adults and children. In our casework we saw a concentration of the very worst in human behaviour on a daily basis.
We were rarely surprised by the things we read. It’s not that we’d heard it all before, but we had heard more than most. Other professions share our experience of this accumulated knowledge of bad deeds. We accept that we were not worse off – that’s not my point, and we are thankful that our role in these investigations rarely involved interaction with the people affected. That must be truly heartbreaking.
Many hours of detailed and frank discussion were had in the sex team office, often on the most revolting of subjects, all relevant to cases. Making light of such extreme scenarios was a usual coping mechanism. Eavesdroppers would probably have been disgusted, or believed that a very warped sense of humour was developing. Luckily, the team was tucked away in an upstairs office that some bright spark christened ‘The Ovary’, due to the distinct lack of males (although that was not always the case.) Regular visitors were aware of the nature of our discussions and generally, most forensic scientists are less easily repulsed by such baseness. Between us, the team examined countless intimate swabs, various clothing items, especially underwear from both sexes, and an eclectic selection of objects that had been used in sexual offences in one way or another. We must have searched tens of thousands of microscope slides for the sometimes elusive spermatozoa (sperm cells.) We were ‘the Jizz Inspectors’!
I was fortunate in my FSS career, to work with a group of amazing individuals, and in this inaugural blog entry, I pay tribute to them. Without further ado, let me introduce you to the Chorley sex team:
In the last few months, the team comprised five experienced reporting officers (ROs), of which I am one, two source level ROs (reporting factual findings with limited interpretation) who are also experienced examiners, one full time examiner, two team secretaries and our manager, Angie.
Cheryl, the most experienced RO in our team, was my mentor when I first joined the FSS. She is meek and self-effacing, often not recognising her own expertise. That said, she is my most respected colleague, and one I can turn to for advice on any number of forensic issues. She has a wonderful Cumbrian accent, gentle manner and a mischievous sense of humour. She is the sort of person who says exactly what she means, which is, I think, why I like her so much. Cheryl once left me a telephone message which read: “Dad phoned. Murder. Thelwall Viaduct.” Whilst I was busy searching for the case file relating to a murder on the Thelwall Viaduct, it transpired that my dad had called and expressed his dismay at the heavy traffic on the Thelwall Viaduct, which he had described as ‘Murder’! He’s a Mancunian… I should have realized the meaning of the note!
The other ROs are Suzy, Jo and Rachel. Suzy is a dedicated and hardworking scientist. In addition to her scientific duties, she liaised with customers as service manager for specialist sexual offences services taken up by particular police forces, and also found time to support colleagues as a union rep. (Check out Suzy’s involvement in Prospect’s ‘I am not a number’ campaign.) Suzy was almost always the scientist working extra hours at the weekend, despite having the furthest commute of us all. That is, when she wasn’t treading the boards in one of her amateur dramatic productions. Before the very first of her plays that I ever saw, a murder-mystery ‘whodunit’, I asked about her character in the play. ‘I’m only playing a small supporting role’, she told me. It would have ruined the play if she’d told me in advance she was playing the murderer!
Jo returned from maternity leave in January after having had Harry. Imagine returning to your beloved job to find there are only 3 months left and work levels are rapidly diminishing. Luckily, Jo is one of the most laid back people and seems to take everything in her stride, coping effortlessly. Jo’s return completed the team and made those last 3 months bearable. I must also tell you that Jo is a wonderfully caring person. I’ve lost count of the number of hugs she’s given me, making everything OK when I’ve been at my wits end. As you can imagine, she’s a brilliant mum.
Rachel is awesome! She is the one of the strongest people I know. Undoubtedly she won’t think this of herself, but it happens to be true. Rachel has a complex personal situation that isn’t for me to write about here. Suffice to say, she manages to be a consummate professional and cope with countless other demands on her time. Rachel transferred to the FSS Birmingham lab late last year, relocating her entire family from the North West in order to continue working for the FSS, only for the government to announce in December that they now plan to close down the entire service. Despite this, she has taken on extra duties as a quality lead until full FSS shutdown next year. Rachel remains, to us at least, a member of our team, despite geography.
Our two source level ROs are Janene and Becky. I have relied on Janene’s help and support too many times to mention. She has a vast knowledge and technical expertise that is second to none. She’s a first rate scientist and I sincerely hope she’ll find a place elsewhere to continue in forensic science. It will be a sad loss to the profession if she does not. Janene married Jason, another extremely experienced FSS scientist and an award winning photographer, last Christmas in an ice palace in Lapland. A spectacular event! The recent FSS closure announcement, leaving them with an uncertain future, could so easily have ruined their plans. Because of their strong characters, they did not allow that to happen. Sitting opposite, Janene endured my daily outbursts of pedantry. She is now likely more wary of ill-placed apostrophes than most, and yet she kindly told me on our last day, that she’ll miss that. Thanks Janene!
Becky is bubbly and fun. She makes delicious cakes, in particular, a wonderful chocolate creation called a ‘Gordon Burns.’ I still don’t know why, so don’t ask. Becky is also the most enthusiastic of Volkswagen enthusiasts, and ‘mum’ to a little Scottish terrier called Monty. After much soul searching, Becky also decided to transfer in order to stay with the FSS. Her first day at the Birmingham lab was 13th December 2010. Her second day saw the heartbreaking government announcement to close the entire FSS. Tremendously awful timing! I can’t begin to imagine how she felt on that day. We at Chorley had known our number was up for some time, but now the government was taking everyone else’s jobs too. Our thoughts were with Becky on that day.
Michelle and I shared many lively discussions including shared moments of surprise, with simultaneous mouths agape. Michelle remembered these in particular in our last few days at the lab. I shall miss those moments too. Michelle is an extremely reliable forensic examiner, having worked on countless cases supporting our team. She also carried out evidence recovery for other ROs in the volume crime team, working on glass casework, and regularly assisted me and others with the implementation of audits and quality processes. I shall miss her cheery disposition and eclectic musical tastes.
Cath & Jane were our team secretaries. Both absolutely vital to the running of the team, they were a constant source of support, problem solving, procurement expertise, general IT knowledge, envelopes, sticky labels, cups of coffee (although we all took our turns at ‘brew making’), new case files, rubber bands, lever arch files, hire vehicles, hugs, advice, shoulders to cry on, information, crisis management, printer cartridges, baked goods and endless other essentials, not in any particular order and to name but a few.
Cath is easily the most practical member of the team. Working quietly in the background (and sometimes not so quietly) to help the team tick over, often so efficiently that we might not notice. Cath got the job done without a fuss and always had time to have a laugh and joke with us all.
Jane, although not old enough to be my biological mum, was my self-appointed ‘work mummy‘, which gave me great pleasure. She sat me down and listened to my woes many a time, gave me a humourous telling off on the odd occasion, and was great fun to talk to the rest of the time. She makes a mean cheese scone, takes a perfect set of minutes at meetings and is as reliable, professional, supportive and good-hearted a team secretary as one could ever hope to work with. If I could afford her, I’d employ her in my new company in a heartbeat. Unfortunately I can’t and she could do much better than work for a small-time outfit such as the likes of me!
Angie, was our manager for the final two years, taking over when our existing manager went on maternity leave. She came to us after having taken the electronic forensic science (EFS) team and totally turning it around in terms of productivity and efficiency. We had imagined that she’d stay with us for an interim period, but when it came to the crunch, Ange requested to remain our manager and we loved her for that. I think we adopted her. A friend once described her as an iron fist in a velvet glove. She said that was a perfect description! She’s pink and fluffy, a girly girl, a ‘Princess Prada’, but she’s strong, with immovable principles, and takes everything in her stride. Ange was the glue that kept our team together. She supported every member on our various journeys, from the point at which we discovered we were going to lose our jobs (almost 2 years back) to the very end. Ange & I ceremoniously switched off the lights in our office for the last time on 31st March. Then we went to her house and sat tweeting from our iPhones, like a couple of geeks, before meeting the rest of the team for a night out. Ange has taken 6 months out in Crete, to meditate and enjoy life. I miss my friend terribly, but she’ll be back, and we keep in touch. You can follow Ange on Twitter. She’s @hillhousefox.
And as for me? Well, I am outspoken, belligerent at times, invariably bad tempered and an insufferable pedant. I applaud the team for even putting up with me, although I hope they’d tell you I have a few redeeming qualities too. I am the nerdy kid from ‘The Breakfast Club’, writing this on behalf of the collective. This collection of individuals is my work family. I love them and I miss them on a daily basis.
Since leaving the FSS, I may be one of a minority who hope to stay in forensic science. The other major forensic organisations in the UK are recruiting very few experienced scientists right now, although others from Chorley found work with them a while back. Whilst the future is uncertain, my view is that the other providers are holding back on recruitment. I can’t blame them. It’s unclear at this stage, how much work they’ll be allocated once the remaining FSS labs have gone. There are the added considerations that, with police forces also suffering cuts, fewer cases will be submitted for forensic examination, and that it might be cheaper for the private sector to hire their own graduates, rather than paying for experienced scientists. If that is the case, I think the private sector may have underestimated the time and money it will take to train graduates to full competency.
My solution to staying in forensic science? Freelance! I recently set up Ethos Forensics, a small consultancy business. I already have some training work lined up and I’m hoping, through my contacts, to gain defence consultancy and auditing work. I’ve also been busy writing a number of articles aimed at the non-scientist, for the very reputable website Defrosting Cold Cases, run by the illustrious Vidster. (I urge you to check out his work if you have any interest at all in forensic science and criminal justice.) I could very easily (relatively speaking) have found employment in another area. I have many transferrable skills, but my role as a forensic scientist may well define me, and I haven’t worked this hard for the last ten years to give up on that just yet.
Filed under: Forensic Science