The organisation I was introduced to for my work placement was the department of forensic science. Forensic science usually goes hand in hand with Law. It specialises in the application of a broad spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest to legal systems. This may be in relation to crime, burglary or murder investigation. Simply put it usually involves the use of scientific techniques to retrieve crucial pieces of evidence which may be of utmost importance to an ongoing police investigation or court case.
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The Department of Forensic Science where I worked during my placement was situated in the green area of the Erasmus Darwin Building on the Clifton campus. Over the past few years the course itself has become quiet popular so much so that it now not only attracts students from across the United Kingdom but from all over the world too. The activities that are developed by the department are a combination of practical examples as well as theory in order for the students to understand some of the certain concepts that are involved in this particular field of science. On top of this the department works closely together with the Nottingham police. This is a huge advantage for the students as it enables them to get first hand information of how to go about certain methods when it comes to retrieving evidence.
During my time in the forensic department I was working alongside senior technician Arthur Richards who was my supervisor and Paul Mason-Smith who was also part of the forensic technician team. The roles that we carried out ranged from setting up lab practicals to setting up different crime scenarios for the students to tackle in the crime scene house.
Some of the things one needed in order to get the jobs done were a good sense of communication and the ability to work as part of a larger group. Some of the tasks that I carried out individually during my work placement were things such as collecting together the equipment that would be used in the lab practicals, charging the camera batteries as well as collecting new equipment from the downstairs store, organising them in order of their usefulness and storing them away in a suitable location. Other aspects of my tasks did not require setting up practicals or coming up with scenarios but rather to attend talks that were focusing on the health and safety viewpoints of the workplace. These talks placed a fundamental part of the placements as they showed the problems that could arise if one was not paying particular attention to the way they were carrying out their tasks. The information obtained from talks such as this one proved to be very useful during the placements. Not only did they enable my to mind my surroundings while executing my work but they also taught me how to optimise my working capacity by using a few simple examples that were provided during the talk.
Skills and knowledge gained
The tasks that I was undertaking over the 5 weeks of the work placement not only helped tremendously in further developing my practical skills, but they also help shape the key attributes that one needs in order to succeed in any workplace. In my particular workplace the skills that were required from me in order to work efficiently were a good sense of communication, teamwork and organisation skills. Fortunately for me, these were some of my better skills.
During my time in the forensics department I also gained exceptional knowledge about some of the techniques that were involved in crime solving. During my placement I carried out two major practicals. One of the techniques that I remember carrying out was The Footwear and Tool mark Impression practical. This practical comprised of a sequence of 4 activities which together were intended to provide one with the opportunity to enhance their skills in examining tool mark evidence and collecting footwear evidence as well as identifying the characteristics of footwear sole patterns. Tool mark impressions are usually the marks that are left behind during a burglary. Let’s take a house for example. If the point of entry is a locked door, the suspect would most definitely use some kind of tool to force entry to the premises. The imprint that is left behind in the door is the mark. The role of a forensic scientist is to find out what tool is compatible with the tool mark that was left on the door. The same concept applies to the footwear impression which will be left behind in the house. Even if the footwear that is left behind is not visible to the naked eye there are certain techniques and equipment that are used in order to make these imprints visible. These however will be explained at a later stage.
Upon successful completion of the practical one could:
Demonstrate the competency in casting footprint impressions
Show the ability to use of Electro-static lifting apparatus
Correctly identify sole pattern characteristics
Correctly eliminate sole print using inkless pad
Safely prepare silicon cast of tool mark impression
Apply theory of identification of impressions to practical scenario.
Before the students could tackle the exercise I had to run through the practical in order to see whether everything the practical was going to work without any faults. Before the going through the practical however we had to create a suitable scenario that fitted with the practical. The scenario my supervisor and I came up with was as follows:
Crime Number: NTU/221208
Location: 10 College Drive, Clifton
Mr. Richard Sole
Burglary at the above address overnight break entry gained via rear lounge window. Window forced using instruments. Climb in steal laptop and mobile phone. Exist as entry. There is footwear mark in flower bed below window and tool marks t scene.
2 suspects have been arrested and tools recovered from them. Their footwear has also been recovered for further examination.
Once the scenario was in place my supervisor and I started the practical. The first activity was the casting of a footwear mark in damp sand. This activity was done as a team. It involved sketching the mark which was mentioned in the crime report with appropriate labelling. After this, the mark that was visible was coded using the letter coding system. This was necessary in order to identify the type of shoe that left behind the imprint.
When the results of the mark came back from the letter coding system we prepared to cast the mark. For this we set casting frame around the mark and embedded it into the sand to prevent seepage of the plaster. This part had to be done as a team in order to ensure that the cast did not damage the mark and that the cast was evenly distributed. To cast the mark I had to:
Take double bagged 2kg crownstone plaster and add 500mls of tap water to the bag, massage it well ensuring that the top of the bag remained closed. Add further water as necessary bearing in mind that the ideal consistency is runny (like pouring cream) without lumps.
When the mixture is well mixed, snip off the corner at the bottom of the bad and using trawler pour plaster mix over the cast. During this step my supervisor pointed out that the mixture was not to be pour directly into the cast as this would destroy fine detail.
Using the trowler gently tap the surface of mixture to ensure plaster settles into all of the impression and any air pockets are released.
After 5 minutes using a craft knife inscribe suitable detail into the cast. This was not necessary in my case as I was just running the practical in order to see whether everything was going as intended however once the students started to do this activity they would have to inscribe their initials into the cast so they could distinguish between their casts. After the inscriptions the cast was left to take form for 45 minutes.
Once the cast was dry I carefully tapped the edges of the casting frame to loosen and remove it. Then gently lifting the cast and keeping it over the tray brush off excess debris with brush so the details of the tread can be seen. At this point the cast was finished.
I was told by a police officer how worked with us during the practical that in a real life crime scene the cast would not be cleaned. The cast plus soil would have been allowed to dry for at least 48 hours before they would be packaged and send intact to forensic scientist laboratory to be examined. The soil or debris attached to the cast may hold a small piece of evidence which could be crucial in solving a case or in the case of the above activity identifying the correct suspect which left the imprint behind during the burglary incident. The skills and knowledge that I took away from this activity was to pay attention to small details such as these which could really make a difference when it comes to solving a crime.
The second activity was the Electro-Static Lifting Apparatus. This device is more commonly referred to as ESLA. ESLA consists of a high voltage power supply/control unit, a nickel-plated steel ground plane and a metalised lifting medium. It is used to lift impressions in dust from nearly any surface. It uses static electricity to attract the dust particles from the surface to a dark-colored lifting film, allowing for a clear and accurate photograph of the print. A grounding wire attaches to a grounded metal surface and a live wire attaches to a special metallic film. The unit is then activated. The film is statically attracted to the surface and dust particles are attracted to the black side of the film. A roller is provided to smooth the film over the surface. A flashlight is provided as an oblique light source to detect and photograph dust marks. This procedure ultimately produces the desired image which in my case was the footwear imprint. The activity was again carried out as a team however since this activity included the use of high voltage was done as a group of three to ensure that everything was cautiously done.
The objective of this activity was to visualise a footwear print which was left behind on a clean surface using the dust particles that remained on the ground. The procedure went as followed:
Using the crime light 80L ( a LED line light which is used for locating evidence such as fibers, hair or footwear prints in a crime scene) at a low angle we had to locate the area of shoe dust print to flooring sample.
Using the Projectina Dustprint lifter my supervisor lifted the dustprint mark
Following this I turned on ESLA and let the current run over the metal foil which was covering the of the shoe dustprint.
After approximately 30 seconds ESLA was turned off to lift over the foil and using the crime light 80L I visualised the left to determine whether the electrostatic attraction drew the dust particle together to form the footwear mark.
After confirming that it did I had the other colleague sketch the resultant lift on the crime report.
This delicate procedure not only depended on precision but also accuracy. When the students carried out the activity, the sketch of the imprint was given a mark depending on the quality and accuracy of the sketch so one had to take extra care when placing the metallic foil on the dustprint not to destroy the arrangement of the particles and also while sketching the imprint.
The third activity in the practical was the suspect shoe comparison. This activity differed from the other two I had done so far. Instead of retrieving footwear marks or dustprint marks my job was to examine 2 pairs of suspect shoes I received for comparison. After close examination I noted their code according to the FSS coding sheets. The FFS coding sheet holds the information of shoe types and patterns. Using the Bigfoot (a specialised set of equipment used to take footprints from shoes) I made a print of each shoe and labeled them appropriately then using a pen I had to highlight the areas of interest on the Bigfoot prints that were made. Finally I compared the Bigfoot prints against the Cast which we made during the first activity as well as the ESLA lift produced in the second activity to see whether any of the pairs were the ones which were found in the crime scene.
I was told that in real life forensic scientists do this to point out the areas that overlapped with footwear evidence that was retrieved from the crime scene. Sometimes there are factors that help identify which shoe corresponded with the print that was left behind at the crime scene these include the size of the shoe. Some of the not so obvious features become more apparent following the completion of the Bigfoot analysis. The analysis tells you a lot about the sort of person which wore the shoes for example worn out soles indicate that the person wearing the shoes must have done a lot of walking. Distorted sole patterns arise due to the weight which is put on them. It is little clues such as these which narrow the number of suspects down.
The final activity of this practical was the Tool Marks activity. What I had to do here was to examine the UPVC (a material used in manufacturing windows, gutters as well as doors) sections with the tool mark damage on them. Using silicon casting kit I made a cast of the marks and allowed them to dry for approximately 15 minutes before removing the from the wood. Once the silicon cast had dried I took it and compared it to the tools which were recovered from the suspects to see if any of the tools matched the cast. To identify the features and pattern of the tool mark and the cast I used a magnifier. This delicate procedure required a lot of patience and a steady hand as it took a while until align the tools with the cast however once this was done I was able to confirm which tool was used to make the tool mark. The final stage of this activity was to sketch and label the tool that made the tool mark. The information gathered from the practical was tabulated and filed away. The tabulated results would then be used by the member of the teaching team to compare them against the results the students would gather. Following the completion of the practical I was asked by my supervisor to prepare a table of results using the computer. This table was to be used by the students to fill in their obtained results. The table also included a set of question which they had to answer.
During my second week in the placement I was introduced to the crime scene house which was also situated on Clifton campus. The Crime scene house had been established very recently as It was formally an accommodation for postgraduate. It was now being used as a sort of training facility that simulated real life situation. The house’s propose was for the students to hone their investigation and retrieval skills as well as get used to the idea of operating in a real life surrounding. The house itself was equipped with CCTV cameras in order to monitor the students while they were carrying out various scenarios. The forensic science department worked closely together with the Nottinghamshire police as stated earlier. The benefits of this was of course the fact that students would get advice from experienced officers on how to deal with murder investigation, burglary cases and drug searches.
My role as an assistant technician was to prepare the house for the appropriate activity that was going to take place. The scenario that I was asked to set up was a Drug search activity which was scheduled to take place during the course of the week. I was working alongside my supervisor and a member of the Nottinghamshire police who told me that this activity was quiet complex in a real drug search. Sometimes the places the drugs were hidden were unimaginable that’s why you had to think like a criminal in order to find them. For health and safety measures the items which were to be used for the exercise were not real drugs.
Once the drugs were all placed away I went back to the offices and designed a table using Microsoft word which held the information of the different kinds of drugs and equipment that were used and the precise location they had been placed in the crime scene house. This was done in order to keep track of the items the students retrieved and to remember which items had been placed where in the house.
On the following day while the students were undertaking the Drug search activity my supervisor and I went into the CCTV room in order to monitor the student’s progress. My supervisor familiarised me with the operating system and the different functions that were necessary in order to control each CCTV individually. After I was comfortable with operating the CCTVs I was left with the task of monitoring the actions of the students as they were doing the activity. During this I had to note down any action which went against the code of conduct they had been taught during their lectures. When entering a crime scene it is of utmost importance that one wears the appropriate equipment such as a protective suite which covers you from head to toe, gloves and a mask. This is to stop you from covering the scene with your fingerprints, hair strains or saliva traces. Some of the students made mistakes such as the ones mentioned and it was precisely these acts that I had to write done in the log book. While I was watching I noticed that some of the students were retrieving the items quicker but in turn they did not find all of them. The items they did not find or rather overlooked were the items which I placed in the more obvious locations such as under the carpet. The others were retrieving the items at a slower pace however they managed to find all of them. This highlighted the fact that patience really was a virtue. After they had retrieved everything the unknown samples of drugs were brought back to the lab for testing.
The other activity which took place in the crime scene house towards the end of the week was the murder scene activity. The preparation of this activity involved using life size dummies which looked shockingly real. Depending on the scenario the dummy was either male or female. The dummy we used that week was the male dummy which had cut wrists as well as a slit throat. It was placed in the double bed room. During this activity the students had to examine the room the “victim” was found in for fibre traces, footwear and any DNA traces. Once the room was adequately searched the students would go back to the lab to observe one of the members of staff demonstrating how to properly transport a corpse. During the demonstration it became apparent to a lot of students including myself that the transport of a corpse from a crime scene was not as straight forward as it seemed. Before the corpse was put in a body bag the limbs had to be wrapped in forensic evidence bags as they may hold crucial pieces of evidence which could be uncovered during the autopsies which take place in the forensic labs.
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I mentioned earlier that as part of being an assistant technician I had to take place in a Health and safety talk in order to familiarise myself with the daily hazards which encompassed the workplaces. The talk raised some interesting points of about the dangers of carelessness during work or how the arrangements of items could cause serious problems during evacuation. The talk’s main focus was about maintaining a good workplace at all times. It showed how one could increase their work efficiency by rearranging their desk, prioritising the items they need in order of their usefulness at the time. The talk went on to explain the necessity of taking short breaks when working on the computer. The breaks would allow you to take your gaze away from the monitor thus easing the strain on your eyes. A general rule of thumb is to look into the distance as this relaxes your ciliary muscles. Moving about during these small breaks is also very useful as it gives you the chance to get up from your chair and stretch your muscles. These few simple roles proved to be a very useful set of skills even now as I’m writing this report.
Throughout the practicals and scenarios that my supervisor, colleague and I did, I felt that our teamwork and communication kept improving to the point were it was almost flawless. This in turn greatly enhanced the rate of completing various tasks and practicals as there was less mistakes. After a while I was even able to help the students with minor technical difficulties of the camera equipment.
The other major practical that I prepared and tested was the Inked Fingerprint practical. Fingerprints are taken for several reasons some of them are:
To establish an individuals identity.
To find out whether someone has a criminal record.
In the case of migration the home office takes fingerprints to identify whether a person is illegal in the country.
To clear a suspect of committing a crime.
Using fingerprints as evidence in a court case.
The Police use them to find out whether an individual has had any previous convictions.
This practical also involved several different stages which when tied together provided me with the chance to develop an understanding of the range of fingerprint pattern types. Also while doing this practical my supervisor introduced me to the procedure that is involved in taking fingerprints from actual crime suspects. Once I had completed this exercise I understood the nature of fingerprint characteristics and I was able to handle fingerprint equipment as well as taking fingerprints from individuals. Before starting the procedure however I was made aware of the health and safety aspects of this practical. Even though the risks that encompassed were minimal I had to wear a lab coat to ensure that no ink came in contact with my clothing. The first part of the practical required teamwork as such I worked with my supervisor. This part of the practical divided the groups into two roles. One person had to supervise and take the prints whereas the other had to assume the role of the suspect who was having their fingerprints taken. For the sake of understanding the practical I assumed the role of supervision. The materials that were used included:
National arrest form
Card form holder
In order for obtaining the best possible prints I had to ensure that my hands were thoroughly washed, dried and free from perspiration, the ink plate was clean and inked appropriately and my wrists and fingers were relaxed making sure not to assists the prints by adding pressure to the plate as this only leads to inaccuracy. Once the precautions were set we went into the preparation procedure which was as followed:
Complete the details on the form
Fold the paper along the lines indicated
Place the form under the fingerprint card in such a way that it leaves the right hand impression visible.
Dot 8 to 12 equally spaced out dots of ink on the plate. Once this has been done roll the ink out evenly until it has a semi mat finish.
Take a test impression on the plain A4 paper. If too much ink is used on the paper clogging will form between the ridges if however too little is used the ridges will appear grey.
The aim in each case was to produce a fingerprint which had sharp black ridges and white interspaces.
The trick of removing excess ink from the plate was to lay a blank piece of paper over it and pass the roller over it until the plate had an even layer of ink.
As part of the health and safety precautions I had to bear in mind to check for cuts, skin disease and the quality of the ridges. This was to make sure that the ink would go into the cuts and cause an infection or agitate the skin. Once the practical had been set up we went through the practical as followed:
The “rolled” impressions were obtained by rolling the digit through 180 degrees from nail edge to nail edge in order for the complete area of rigid detail on the inner surface of the finger to be recorded. My supervisor indicated that it is recommended to do this slowly as it produces a better quality of fingerprint.
Take the fingerprints starting with the right thumb and working your way across the form, taking each finger in turn to the right little finger making sure that the right digit appears in the suitable space.
After completing the right hand adjust the fingerprint form in the holder in such a manner as to allow the left hand prints to be taken. Once it has been repositioned repeat the same steps with the left hand taking care to position the digits.
The reason the plain impressions are taken before the rolled impressions is to certify that the rolled impressions have been taken in the correct manner on the fingerprint form. I was told that they may prove very useful to a fingerprint office therefore it is very important that they are recorded within the area chosen for them and do not overlap onto other lines or printing. When these were taken I had to move the form down in the holder to expose the plain expression section. As soon as this is done I took each of the suspect’s hands and pressed all four fingers together onto the ink plate, lifted them off and onto the appropriate space and pressed all four fingers down together. After this I took them of and used the same procedure to get the thumb prints.
The final part of the practical was to take the palm prints. Using the ink roller I covered the whole palm and finger surface of my supervisor with a coating of ink. Finally I had done this I placed the heel of the palm onto the paper and drew the hand back over the over the roller to the fingertips, exerting a little pressure. Once the practical was complete I put away the equipment and prepared the lab for research students that were working on a project that involved the use of cameras and 80L crime lights.
I realised that throughout the placement my organisation and communication skills kept improving. Thanks to this it made me a more reliable person. The various tasks that were allocated to me by my supervisor reflected this. Being responsible for setting up practicals, backing up CCTV footage for later use and preparing equipment for research students has also increased my confidence of managing tasks by my self. The health and safety speech has also helped as it made me aware of the hazards that I used to ignore before.
Having completed my placement at the forensic department I must say that this has been a priceless experience for me. The placement has not only given me an insight in the day to day activities that encompass a forensic scientist but it has also helped in further developing the key attributes and understandings that one needs in order to excel in any given workplace. I believe that the way I carried out the tasks that were assigned to me had a direct influence on my personal development and of course vice versa. Judging by this I would like to think that I carried out my daily tasks and completed them to the best of my ability. My attitude also contributed to my development. Generally I was quiet content with my workplace. At the beginning it took a while to adjust to certain aspects of the placement such as timekeeping, sticking to the deadlines and schedules and bearing the responsibility of setting up practicals. These demands and responsibilities required that I had to learn quickly and adapt in order to prevail in this workplace.
I realised during the placement that one of my weaknesses was the accuracy and reliability of the practicals I had prepared. This is only natural as forensic science was not my area of expertise however since I applied for this placement it meant that I had to follow the same conduct and set up the practicals in the exact same manner as a forensic technician would do. My supervisor also gave me the advice of taking my time while setting up the practicals. In order to resolve this issue I paid particular attention to the other technicians while they were setting up practicals. As a result of this the reliability of my practicals improved immensely over the course of the placement. One of my stronger assets that my supervisor commended on was my organising ability and initiative. I was able to resolve an issue that occurred with the backing up of the CCTV recordings. The recordings were usually burnt on a CD however for some reason when they were empty even though the burning of the CCTV recordings was successful. I suggested the idea of uploading the recordings on an external hard drive. This had a number of benefits as it was capable of storing many more Giga bytes of CCTV recordings and in the long run would work out cheaper than to keep purchasing CD ROMs. Overall I would say that this placement has transformed me into a more responsible, reliable and punctual individual who is able to work as part of a team, as well as work individually in order to accomplish the task that is set out to the best of his ability.
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