Staffordshire Forensic Partnership Annual Review 2022-23

By Martyn Hordern,

This is the fourth annual review during my time as co-ordinator and the first one that wasn’t in some part affected by COVID since my first year. The review also includes the thoughts of Rachel Bolton-King, the Partnership’s Visiting Professor in the first VP report.

The lack of COVID restrictions allowed the Partnership to offer placement opportunities with minimal impact and it saw some really productive and interesting projects ably supported by volunteer mentors from within Police Forensics to whom I am grateful as always.

The year also saw the presentation of our inaugural Rob Shaw award for the placement student of the year for 2021 of which more later on. The award for 2022 is due to enter the judging stage shortly.

The partnership was active on several fronts being an active participant in the creation of a Partnership Toolkit drawn up by the FCN where both the coordinator and Tim Lee from Staffordshire Police gave presentations. There was a similar input into the creation of a Digital Forensic Apprenticeship by the same body with the partnerships links to the University seeing it being asked to be an academic partner in the new entry route into the field.

This last year saw the University taking on the Chair of the Partnership programme board and April was to have been the first meeting on the University campus and at the new multi-million pound Catalyst Building. Unfortunately, illness and a clash of diaries on a hitherto unseen scale saw the meeting cancelled.

The spring saw the review of the partnership finally starting to see some momentum which continued throughout the year.

The partnerships links to four current PHD students were maintained to various degrees with strong relationships developed with Forensic Investigations around the use of crime lights at scenes and the use of virtual reality to train forensic investigators.

Long term placement students has been an ambition of the partnership for a number of years. Working with Police HR a policy process has been developed but ongoing changes within Forensic Submissions (seen as the most likely post for such a placement) have prevented the matter moving forward to the point of seeking to place a student into the department. However, what should not be overlooked is the fact that agreement has been reached on the postholder being paid, a process that benefits the whole of Staffordshire Police has been devised and a likely area of working identified. Should funding and HR issues be resolved then everything is in place to recruit. As with the creation of student volunteers I am grateful to the forces local Unison branch officers for their consideration and assistance.

Following on from the unsuccessful KTP funded work on the use of virtual reality to assist first responders, visits have been made to the Health Innovations centre of the University based at Stafford where on a couple of occasions we were hosted by Emily Browne, who kindly gave time up to the partnership to show case the facilities. This saw a slight shift in focus from the use of VR to a wider consideration of simulation and its uses in training and more so in creation of scenarios to assist in validation for Forensic Investigations especially as regards complex crime.

One of the simulation rooms at the Health Innovations Centre, Stafford.

The year also saw some slight changes to placement opportunities. The annual 6 weeks independent projects are a voluntary offering to students and in no way linked to their qualification. Traditionally they have been offered and managed by police staff with little input from university colleagues. Given the very nature of the partnership, efforts have been made to encourage collaboration between police and university staff and also to develop final year project offerings to students with similar support.

A pilot FYP supported by Ryan Groves (DFU) and Dr Sarah Fieldhouse started in September and in September 2023 projects involving Sam Danton (Police Submissions) and Jody Dunnett at the university will look at forensic packaging policy within Staffordshire Police and testing of street level drugs seizures to ascertain purity and cutting agents etc.

Volunteers is another area that has been further developed this last year. An email request in 2020 from a student enquiring about volunteering opportunities led to discussions with the forces then Volunteers Coordinator and in time, following research with other forces saw the development of three roles within forensics which would be aimed at final year students. The reporting year ended with the satisfactory conclusion of all relevant consultation and the process is now at the stage where subject to agreement from the various teams and the board the roles can be advertised to students.

May 2022 saw the first unrestricted summer placements since 2020 where the force welcomed 6 students conducting research in 5 projects across all areas of forensics over a period of 6 weeks. At its conclusion the students presented their findings to ACC Mattinson at police headquarters in again the first in person presentations since before COVID. The practical relevance to police forensics was clear to see with ACC Mattinson commenting how impressed she was with the connection to the various teams in forensics and how the operational impact was a feature in all the research.

2022 6 Week Placement Students a their Presentation Event

May also saw the two MSCi placement students from the spring of 2022 presenting their research to university staff as well as police supervisors. Both projects were well received and the Good Sam project was subsequently presented to the Force’s Evidence Based Practise Board by the student. This led to the Force’s Public Protection Unit taking an interest in the application and its use in cutting response times to domestic abuse cases.

The summer saw a computing student accept a research dissertation challenge from the partnership to develop the KEV SOMU application to the next stage of development which resulted in an excellent proof of concept that not only looked the part but would assist users as envisaged by Adam Newberry who suggested it as a project some time ago.

The workstreams of the Partnership continue to meet and develop ideas and conversations. As is often the case members move on to new roles away from Staffordshire Police and the University or take on new responsibilities in their ‘day job’ which impacts on their work within the partnership.

Within those constraints I remain grateful to a core of staff who are a real asset to the partnership. The year saw several collaborative meetings where staff from across the workstreams met together and these were by far the most productive preventing any ‘silo’ thinking and leading to joined up decisions. One example was the continued focus on forensic awareness which impacts on all areas of forensics from crime scene to laboratory where efforts to resolve this perennial problem had some small gains.

A 6 week placement looking at packaging guidance was well received and networking between the Professional Development Unit and Forensic Investigations saw input from the latter into course material and content that is delivered to the force’s Student Officers.

In addition, work to develop the KEV SOMU app in the latter stages of the year and an application for STAR funding from the Home Office in collaboration with Professor Elhadj Benkhelifa to develop an application to support officers (ultimately unsuccessful) was further evidence of the commitment in this area. Conversations with the Police Digital Service at the beginning of the year led to further discussions at the end of it to look at the Digital Forensics application.

Following the departure of Professor Graham Williams from the university and after discussions, Associate Professor Rachel Bolton-King was offered and accepted the role as Visiting Professor. Following vetting Rachel now has access to police IT and forensics teams and has already made a positive impact across them.

The October 2022 Board meeting saw the first presentation of the Rob Shaw Award on a sunny day at the Catalyst. Rob’s daughter Emma and son Robert were on hand to present the award and to hear some fine words as to how those who knew their dad remembered him.

The first two recipients were Megan Hildrew a Forensic student who graduated in 2021 and fittingly Patryk Wos a computing student. Both have gone on since graduation to careers in their chosen field and as was remarked at the time are a fitting testimony to the value of placements to the employability of students.

Patryk Wos, left, and Megan Hildrew, right, with Rob Shaw’s children, centre.

One of the coordinators responsibilities is to sit on the Evidence Based Practise Board within Staffordshire Police. This ensures a joined-up approach between the partnership and the wider force. During the year, as mentioned presentations have been made to the board, arranged through the partnership including by students. The coordinator is part of a small team tasked with ‘operationalising’ evidence based practise within the force with part of that including cataloguing the 50 plus research projects created by student officers. In November a student who needed to complete 40 hours voluntary work was recruited via the university for this task and completed the work to a high standard and presented her findings to the board. The year ended with Professor Claire Gwinnett presenting her DASA funded work around VAWG to the board.

Working with Dr Sarah Fieldhouse the partnership has made a number of attempts to secure funding to further develop the use of SmartWater forensic marking as part of VAWG initiatives.

This tactic has a remarkable preventative record but there are opportunities to improve victim preparedness, collection of evidence and forensic examination of scenes. However, approaches to the Home Office and STAR were unsuccessful. Despite this the partnership has continued to work with the Force lead in this area and facilitated an opportunity to promote the initiative at the Evidence Based Practise Board to gain further traction within force and also through the Home Office to be invited to be part of the ‘Accelerator’ programme designed to assess the worth of novel tactics.

December saw our third employability event under the ‘Journeys’ banner with this event being entitled Journeys into Digital Forensics. Dean Northfield from the University was a central character in making the event happen and once again, we were indebted to Dr John Wheeler for assisting with the cost of refreshments. As well as former students from the world of police digital forensics, we had former students from HMRC as well as private providers describing their journeys into the field. Some fantastic presentations were supported by input from two private providers (CCL and Sytech) and Staffordshire Police recruitment each giving an insight into their particular recruitment processes. In addition, there were some excellent networking opportunities enjoyed by all present.

Collage of the speakers at the December 2022 Employability Event.

January’s Programme Board meeting had an emphasis on the SFP Review that was initiated in late 2021 but in reality, started in earnest during the late spring of 2022. A small team of the coordinator, David Flatman-Fairs, Claire Millar and Rachel Bolton-King had begun to meet and discuss the current position and potential for future developments of the partnership.

However, what became clear was that for the strategic direction of the partnership to be fully assessed then an external reviewer was essential. The programme board discussed this fully before deciding to ask Sarah Page from Staffordshire University to conduct a strategic workshop involving stakeholders at all levels of the partnership. This is planned for June 2023. Following on from that Sarah will produce a report for the board’s consideration. Sarah is noted for her work in the area of collaborative partnerships.

The new year saw two MSCi students commencing 13 week placements with Forensic Investigations. These placements are always keenly contested, more so this year with fewer students than before but with a similar number of opportunities for them to carry out a placement. The placements on this occasion were looking at the force’s response to Cannabis Factories and the use of 360-degree cameras to record crime scenes.

The year ended with the 6 week placement recruitment process. There was a disappointing response to offering students an opportunity to attend Staffordshire Police Forensics for a tour and to then learn of the opportunities for research placements. Such was the lack of interest that the open day was cancelled albeit the opportunities were still offered but just three students expressed an interest in a placement. It is hoped that 2024 will see renewed interest in such opportunities.

The employability of students undertaking such activities is well proven, evidenced not only by an award some years ago but more recently by the news that one of our 2022 MSCi students and one of the 2022 6 week placement students have both secured roles as direct entry Detectives in Staffordshire and Great Manchester Police forces.

Another benefit of the work streams meeting together was the formation of a working group involving police Crime Scene workstream members and Forensic Investigation management together with Professor Claire Gwinnett to work together on how to approach the accreditation of Complex Crime Scenes. This follows the well-deserved accreditation of Volume Crime across the force in Staffordshire, one of the first forces in the country to achieve a force wide accreditation. This working group will also look at using the simulation facilities at the university to aid the future complex crime accreditation work within the force.

At the end of the period a Media and Marketing student was secured on a 3 month placement starting in June to look at how the partnership ‘markets’ itself by use of digital media and how better it can improve its content to raise awareness of the work done between the two organisations. The resulting work will feed into the review process.

Throughout my time as co-ordinator I have striven to try as far as possible, to ensure each partner organisation gets the maximum benefit from the arrangement. The University continues to derive the attractiveness of the partnership to prospective students and of course the interaction between its academics and forensic specialists is invaluable to ensure teaching is as close to the real world as possible.

The research projects offered to students continue to be practically based and of use and interest to police staff. It allows for research that would otherwise not get completed due to time pressures. Students spending time working with police staff get a unique insight into the force and I remain convinced that this puts the organisation in a good position to recruit the brightest and best students post-graduation. In addition, free access to the Catalyst working spaces has continued to benefit police forensic teams over the last 12 months who have been able to meet away from the workplace. Opportunities around validation and the use of the Crime Scene House and to come the simulation suite continue to benefit the force. The force has also begun to benefit from dedicated time to the partnership as a result of Rachel Bolton-King’s work which equates to a day a month.

Individually Police staff have a range of benefits from the arrangement which include in no particular order, 25% discount off a Masters degree in Digital Forensics, free access to short courses, free access to Microsoft and Adobe qualifications, attendance at lectures and free transport to the Forensics Expo event in London. Some staff also do guest lectures that are mutually beneficial to all concerned with the individual developing themselves as well as the students they speak to.

Looking forward to the workshop and work of Sarah Page will I feel be an opportunity to further develop the partnership and to give it a renewed sense of direction and development over the next 5 years or so.

I continue to be grateful to the support of David Flatman-Fairs and Claire Millar and also those throughout the partnership who make the time in really busy schedules to help to sustain and improve it.

Martyn Hordern

Visiting Associate Professor Report for SFP Annual Report 2022/23

In August 2022 the SFP Visiting Professor role was re-instated with my vetting approved, IT setup and pass issued in January 2023. Over the last 7 months, I have been supporting the Forensics Department by acting as a critical friend within four Wider SMT meetings and since January have spent at least a day each month at Headquarters (Western Road), typically based in the Submissions Office. To date, my main focus has been getting to know the team and better understanding the structure, operation, challenges and opportunities across faced the Department. I have been actively engaged in staff discussions relating to improving procedures in Forensic Submission and staff wellbeing within teams. I have been made very welcome within the Department and have already had detailed tours of the Smithfield site and significantly expanded Digital Forensics Unit, and been immersed in the activities and processes operating within the Forensic Submissions Unit. Already, this has been an excellent learning opportunity for me personally. The knowledge gained will feed back into curriculum development to further enhance learners’ skills, create more immersive learning opportunities and continue to ensure alignment with contemporary employer/sector needs, particularly as a number of our alumni work in units across the Department. It has been interesting to see Niche and OneNote being adopted for property/exhibit and casefile management. There is a real opportunity to adopt the template-based OneNote approach in modules requiring contemporaneous notes/diaries and/or completion of statements as forms of assessment. In addition, the roles of Forensic Submission Assistants, Officers and Advisors could be further embedded where forensic strategies are covered for example.

Most recently, we have started to plan the development of forensic strategy and decision-making competence assessments for forensic investigators (FI) using the university’s immersive facilities and bringing in the expertise of the suite’s technical specialists to simulate various scenarios and locations commonly encountered by Staffordshire Police’s FIs. I have also been invited to deliver a Workshop Wednesday to FIs at both Lichfield (April) and Smithfield (May) sites to enhance awareness and practices in the recovery of firearm-related evidence at scenes. Also, to provide input and support strategy development with Forensic Area Manager Joanna Hill for a Senior Investigating Officer Course provided by Staffordshire Police’s Learning and Development (L&D) Department, which involves a firearms scenario. We are currently exploring other areas where university colleagues could offer input into other FI workshops and/or may support future L&D events moving forwards.

Over the next 12 months I will continue to act as a critical friend to the Department and seek further opportunities for both university staff and students to support the Forensics Department and wider Force. We will initially focus on designing competency-based assessments for an initial pilot and if successful, wider implementation. In parallel we will explore opportunities for funding these activities through a KTP (Knowledge Transfer Partnership) for example, and the potential for commercialisation of any product(s) generated. Building on this, we could further support work to extend the current scope of accreditation, and the future planning for complex and major crime accreditation. This work could be facilitated through, for example:

  1. Proposing Live Briefs for placement students or MSci interns to conduct desk-based projects and write initial validation plans (shorter term).
  2. Vetted staff/PhD student to develop an evidence base on which future validation studies are designed (longer term).

Rachel Bolton-King.