Staffordshire Forensic Partnership Annual Review 2021-22

By Martyn Hordern,

This is my third annual review of the various activities under the auspices of the Staffordshire Forensic Partnership.

April 2021 started with the easing of COVID 19 lockdown measures as the vaccination programme continued albeit restrictions continued in some form or another during the summer and onwards. This again impacted on our 6-week summer placements which I feel were the least successful in recent years.

As mentioned in last year’s review we lost our friend and colleague Rob Shaw in Match 2021 and shortly into this current year the board agreed that the Rob Shaw award would be instituted in his memory and given to the best placement student each year. At the time of writing the time is nearing the point of judging the award for 2021.

It should not be overlooked that the design created by the University School of Design, Technologies and the Arts is a fantastic piece of ceramic art and a testament to the man Rob was. I am grateful to Ed Austin and David Finney for their assistance and especially to David who designed and made the award.

May saw the three spring MSCi students presenting their project presentations and all three from Digital Forensics Unit, Forensic Investigations and Submissions were good and relevant pieces of work that have gone some way towards informing forensic practise going forward.

The same month saw 4 students commencing 6 weeks placement projects looking at quality, validation, drugs testing and data available to officers via social media. Once again there was not an opportunity to present their projects for the students due to COVID and also the nature and timing of the placements not being conducive to presentations.

June saw the police and university jointly bidding for STAR Home Office funding to develop the stab damage database devised by a previous final year project student in 2020. Ultimately the bid was unsuccessful, but the feedback will be really useful in shaping future bids. It has however, I feel focused minds towards making more bids to support the partnerships work in the future.

In 2020 Staffordshire Police’s Forensic Recovery Unit outlined their requirements for an app to assist with workflow and the early summer of 2021 saw its delivery to Police IT for evaluation. The forces ongoing IT transformation has frustrated its implementation along with initial testing identifying some minor bugs. That said it is a good example of what can be achieved.

The summer of 2021 saw the first tentative discussions for a new qualification on offer from the university for a MSC in Enhanced Forensic Practise drawn up by Professor Graham Williams and early discussions were positive and the course is going through the various validation processes as I understand.

A feature of this year was the continued work done to work with Staffordshire Police’s HR team to create a long-term placement policy not only for the partnership but across the force. Initial work done to create the policy has been further shaped to include all forms of placement from work experience upwards.

As of May 2022 it is close to being approved at which point the partnership can look to offering year long placement opportunities to students.

The continued benefits of the partnership were highlighted in the autumn when police Early Intervention staff alongside Forensic Submissions met with university academics and staff to look how best to support a vaping amnesty for schools in the county amid concerns that the vapes contains controlled substances. Reluctance on the behalf of schools to get involved has stifled progress but the opportunity to have quick analysis of surrendered items remains on offer.

The highlight of the year without doubt was the completion of the formal collaboration agreement by all parties after detailed discussions over a period of time. This was signed off at the October Programme Board meeting at which the suggestion was made by ACC Justin Bibby that the role of chair be by rotation on a yearly basis.

The meetings to that point had been chaired solely by the Police but from January 2022 it was to be chaired by Helen Poole from the university with later meetings to be hosted at the Catalyst Centre at the university.

The autumn of 2021 saw the recommencing of the Work Stream meetings which had been on hold due to COVID along with the fact that the police did not have the capability for virtual meetings on Teams by in large.

These meetings have already seen a reaffirming of solid working relationships and the creation of some new ones especially within the Digital and Cyber workstream with new leads from both the police and the university adding a fresh vitality and new opportunities.

December 2021 saw the second in a planned series of employability events for students soon to graduate from the university. The inaugural event earlier in the year was well received as was this one. With a theme of Journeys into Policing and Forensics, students were given an insight in the variety of ways in which police officers and staff and former university students, as well as current staff got into their chosen field. I am grateful to Dr John Wheeler who funded refreshments at the event from his budget.

A question and answer session along with an opportunity to network was well received with positive feedback from many students who had attended. The intention is to run a third event in the autumn of 2022.

Promotion of the partnership is an important part of the work of the co-ordinator and this is achieved in a variety of ways. A Twitter feed of almost 700 followers provides a quick and easy means of communication. The SFP ‘blog’ page hosted on the university web site allows for longer news items to be relayed. However, we live in an age where there is a need to cover several bases and the new year of 2022 saw the launch of the SFP’s LinkedIn page, an aspiration for some time. Whilst its still in an embryonic state it has over 140 followers and is in a good position to develop further over the coming months.

Over the years the partnership, primarily through the University comms team has accumulated a number of video’s from events that are hosted on the University YouTube page. However, they weren’t catalogued specifically under the SFP and this has now been completed with our very own SFP Playlist which provides another resource and means to promote the work we do. I am grateful to Julie-Anne Slevin for sorting this out.

Another ongoing benefit of the partnership is the recycling of police equipment that is still useable and brings real world experience to students. Following the national Kiosk replacement programme Staffordshire Police have donated some of their old kiosks to the university to enable students to have experience of extracting data from mobile devices. Other useable but surplus to requirements equipment has also been donated to allow students to have practical hands on experience which supports the partnerships work in student employability.

January 2022 saw the start of our MSCi 13 week placements with Staffordshire Police. Two students completed their placements in early May. One looked at the testing of cocaine and crack cocaine in an effort to provide a standardised process for the EDIT kits and the other looked at an app called Good Sam that has possibilities outside of forensics as well as supporting the attendance at crime scenes.

The partnership continues to make new friends and connections and in February quite through chance the co-ordinator was invited to speak at Keele University’s forensics students’ careers day.

Very much like the events the SFP had organised this was aimed at giving advice, guidance and opportunity to soon to graduate students. Whilst the input the SFP delivered was focused on policing careers in its many varieties it also allowed an opportunity for professional discussions. I am sure there will be the opportunity for further such discussions in the future.

Back in 2019 one of the six week projects was based on the FITs LED torches supplied by CopperTree. These torches continue to have an ever increasing opportunity of use within forensics and over the last few months of this reporting period there have been discussions with Dr Sarah Fieldhouse over the potential for a PHD student to work alongside Staffordshire Police’s Forensic Investigation team to look at the use of these torches in a variety of situations. The year ended with a student commencing her work in this area.

A spin off from this was work done by SmartWater to protect victims using a spray device which the partnership has been followed with interest for some time. Early work has been done to look at potential projects in this area to support efforts to mitigate violence against women and girls.

March saw the recruitment of students for our annual 6 weeks summer placements. Interest was a little less than in previous years but 6 students for 5 projects were selected and we look forward to once again welcoming them into Staffordshire Police for their presentation day in July the first one since 2019 due to COVID.

Throughout the year the partnership has been represented on the Centre Leadership Team of the Centre for Crime, Justice and Security headed by its director Professor Claire Gwinnett who is also a work stream lead. It has also further embedded the partnership across the university landscape. This has allowed for further networking and connections to be made and one saw Dr’s Leanne Savigar-Shaw and Lauren Metcalf presenting to the Police’s Evidence Based Practise Board in the spring which has potentially created further opportunities for both the police and the university in the area of evidence based policing / practise.

There is currently a review of the partnership, spurred on by the signing of the agreement. Its aim is to look at all its activities with a view to seeing what works, what could be done better and what we could try as a fresh initiative. Early work has suggested student volunteers within forensics and replacing the 6 weeks placements with police staff supporting final year projects via suggestions for research.

Key to any partnership are the relationships between those people involved in it as without them then progress would not be made. There are some solid relationships across those involved in the SFP which continue to develop. There is still a competing demand across all of the members of the work streams to find the capacity and time to contribute but on the whole, most achieve that which is to their credit.

Once again Dean Northfield has been a great support especially as regards student employability and placements. He is now aided by Adam Newberry, Staffordshire Police’s loss has been the University’s gain in this regard.

Over the last few months Dr Sarah Fieldhouse has as been mentioned, assisted in developing a PHD student project that will benefit Forensic Investigations and we are looking to collaborate further as regards a project aimed at assisting to reduce violence against women and girls. In fact, along with another academic the partnership could be supporting in total 3 or even 4 PHD students which is I feel great progress.

I feel that at this point in time, some 6 years on since the partnership was formally launched that we are in a position to really kick on in terms of developing projects and implementing them into the day to day operations of forensics.

The review which I hope we can conclude in the coming months should determine what that looks like and as long as partners are able to provide sufficient time to enable staff to carry these activities out then I feel we will truly make a difference.

The period of this report concluded with the news that Professor Graham Williams was moving onto pastures new in academia and we wish him well. His idea of the visiting professor role was hampered by COVID and late last year we had discussed re starting it, as I feel, and he ultimately agreed that a lot of the areas he wanted to address remain there waiting.

I will conclude by thanking once again David Flatman-Fairs and Claire Millar for their support. I am allowed to get on with the job in the knowledge that they are there to support me when needed and that degree of autonomy is a great asset in my view.