Student experience blog of 6 week project placement with Staffordshire Police Forensics

By Martyn Hordern,

Beckie Edwards (first left) and fellow students on their first day

The student experience is an important part of the Partnership and we are delighted that one of this years students was willing to put her experiences and thoughts onto paper. Beckie gives a great insight into how she became interested in a placement through to starting a six week research project with Stafford Police Forensics in this the first of a two part blog.

Part 1 – How I became involved 

This blog is going to focus on my experience whilst on a six week placement with Staffordshire Police, through the Staffordshire University Forensic Partnership. My particular project was based in the Digital Forensics department, but before I go into that I will tell you a little about myself! My name is Rebecca Edwards and I am studying a Forensic Biology degree at Staffordshire University. I really wanted to be involved in this placement scheme because it has been my aim to work in forensics since I was around 13 years old – therefore this was my dream placement! Prior to this I had no experience in a real-world setting so it was a great opportunity to get a feel for what it would really be like as a career. To begin with I will take you through the process of how I applied and my journey through the placement, up to what I’m doing now!

‘I hadn’t previously heard of the Staffordshire Forensic Partnership’

I hadn’t previously heard of this partnership until it was mentioned to me one day in a conversation with a lecturer and it took my attention straight away. To initially sign up I had to email David (senior lecturer at the University) a short personal statement to express interest in the placement and why I would like a position. David was so helpful in providing me with all the information I needed and keeping students in the loop about the progression of our applications, telling us what we needed to do next.

I found this open day incredibly informative’

After the initial expression of interest, I was amongst the students chosen to come along to an open day. The purpose of this was to ask any questions, have a tour of the police headquarters in Stafford (where we would be based) and to meet the staff. I found this open day incredibly informative as I had no idea how a police HQ operated, how the hierarchy of departments and staff were structured or the magnitude of workload they collectively deal with! We found out at the start of the day that the placement is based around a project that you would like to do and research the topic to eventually present your findings to staff at the end of the six weeks. To begin with I had absolutely no idea what to do my project on and how I could possibly think of anything to help such a vast department of experts. However, we were later given a really interesting presentation from the forensics staff who gave us suggestions for projects they would like students to do this year, highlighting areas that are in need of new ideas.

‘That is the great thing about forensics; it is so versatile and has so many routes to explore!’

The project suggestions ranged from trialling different lifting tapes to be used at crime scenes, to new ways of analysing information collected from satellite navigation devices. The idea that interested me the most was related to collecting data from games consoles. I chose to do this because my interest in the digital side of forensics has grown massively over the last year and I had been contemplating studying a masters in that area upon completion of my degree. (That is the great thing about forensics; it is so versatile and has so many routes to explore!)

‘searching the news for real world examples of how my project would help the community ‘

Once we had chosen a project topic, we had to then write a project proposal (one side of A4), outlining why we wanted to do that topic and the reasons why further research is needed. I come from a biology background so hadn’t covered the digital much in my previous modules, so I had a lot of research to do before I could write my proposal! I started with learning the very basics of how hard drives are structured, the ways data is extracted from them and why games console extraction is different to say a PC or laptop. I picked lecturer’s brains and read a lot of journal articles until I felt like I had a good starting knowledge to talk about the project. Something I found helpful was searching the news for real world examples of how my project would help the community. Games consoles that are taken into police possession would be for reasons relating to criminal activity, a prevalent one being child grooming. This is due to the popularity of playing over the internet and often with strangers. Therefore, being able to quickly and effectively take information from the devices of suspects is paramount to the safety of a large number of victims. A quick Google search of issues relating to this really shocked me as I didn’t realise how often it occurred on that platform and made me want to help even more! I feel it is important to understand how your project will help not only the police force but also the general public, as helping the community is at the heart of policing no matter what your role is, and having a passion for what you are working on is important in every area of life!

‘However this method carries a lot of risks and issues, both ethical and technical’

Without going into too much detail, there are basically two ways of extracting data from a device, ‘live’ and ‘dead’ extraction. Dead extraction involves the traditional process of taking the drive out of a device and making a copy of it, interpreting everything that is on there. This way you will find relevant evidence on there, even after the suspect may have tried to delete them. However with the rise of internet use and data being stored on a cloud, live extraction is becoming more popular as it involves actually turning the device on and looking at it as the suspect would. This way you can see things in areas you may not with dead extraction. My project was originally revolving around how to improve methods of live extraction from games consoles as it is more difficult to get an image of console hard drives and therefore live extraction is the preferred method. However this method carries a lot of risks and issues, both ethical and technical. For my proposal I researched this area heavily and included real world examples to cover every aspect of the area.

‘I was absolutely over the moon to be offered one’

Once we had submitted our proposals to David, we had to wait to be offered an interview. The staff at HQ selected the students for interview and then we were informed of interview dates and times. I was absolutely over the moon to be offered one and even if I wasn’t to progress any further, I knew it was a good opportunity to experience what an interview for a career in this area would be like and to be honest I had never been so nervous for anything else in my life! The interview was at the HQ and the staff instantly put me at ease and asked questions about me, my interests and my project. They seemed really impressed with the amount of research I had done and even suggested ways to advance my project to focus more on specific areas. After the interview we then had to wait to find out if we were successful or not.

‘I was ecstatic! ‘

The day came and I found out I was one of the few lucky students to be given a placement and I was ecstatic! It was daunting as I was going into an unknown environment and was worried I didn’t know enough or would be prepared enough however, my levels of excitement surpassed this so couldn’t wait to start. We had to complete a number of vetting forms which were quite extensive and therefore took a number of weeks to be processed, then the placement could commence.

Before we started the placement, we attended an induction day at headquarters. We were introduced to the Partnership Coordinator Martyn who gave us all the information we needed. He provided us with induction check sheets which tracked our progress and helped us visualise the things we needed to be aware of to give us the best start possible. He was our first point of contact and stayed in regular contact with us throughout the whole placement, asking if we had any issues and was always just an email away or you could go and knock on at his office if we were unsure of anything at all. We were then taken to our relevant departments where we could meet the rest of the staff we would be working with, finalise our project ideas and start to plan our time.

In Part 2 Beckie describes her experiences working with Staffordshire Police Forensics through to the day when she had to present her project to Partnership members and her mentors.