In October, Northumbria Police launched a new Forensic Services Department, bringing together its traditional forensics, Digital Forensics Unit (DFU), CCTV, Forensic Collision Investigation Unit (FCIU) and forensic Quality Team under one structure for the first time.

Consolidating forensic services into one department is an approach already adopted by several forces, bringing with it a host of challenges from infrastructure and governance to culture change – but also the potential for real benefits through delivering forensics in a more coordinated, cohesive way.

We caught up with Northumbria’s Head of Forensic Services, Kirsty Potter, who led the change. She describes the force’s journey in recent years and the benefits already being seen from its new approach.

Facing the forensics challenge

Like many forces, Northumbria has faced plenty of change in recent years. In the field of forensics alone, new technologies and new legislation combined with the implications of regional and national factors made local change vital.

“There has been a lot of work to do, especially in the accreditation world where we are all facing a lot of deadlines to meet at a fast pace,” Kirsty says. “We were still working from units across different business areas which weren’t cohesive or coordinated. To put it simply, to meet the challenges ahead and align with national forensic science strategies and our vision to achieve the best criminal justice outcomes, we needed to align all of our forensic functions.”

Northumbria Police is in a strategic alliance with Durham Constabulary, and since 2015 has been co-located at a site in Peterlee, where Durham Forensic Services also operates. Both forces hold ISO 17025 accreditation for fingerprints, footwear and fingerprint chemical enhancement as part of this alliance. Northumbria Police holds its own ISO 17025 accreditation for digital forensics and is working towards ISO 17020 accreditation for crime scene investigation. But it’s accreditation for forensic collision investigation will be held by North Wales Police as part of the national Forensic Collision Investigation Network (FCIN). “It’s a unique, complex model of accreditation,” Kirsty says.

What emerged during senior management discussions last year was the necessity for a single forensic governance model for the force:

“We had a vision to take our forensic services further and the idea of bringing together forensic functions was very much on the strategic radar after discussions about regionalisation in the North East Transformation, Innovation and Collaboration programme (NETIC) and engagement with national programmes such as the FCIN. So it made sense to have one governance structure with our traditional forensics, digital forensics, collision investigation and forensic quality team all aligned into one area of business. We can then make efficiencies and ensure we’re reacting to change and development in technology.”

There was also an element of learning from other forces and adopting good practices seen elsewhere. “Loads of forces have already done it, there are lots of forward-thinking forces out there,” Kirsty adds. “The NPCC and Forensic Science Regulator recommend aligning DFUs and FCIUs.”

Confidence to deliver

With 25 years’ experience in forensic science and a relationship to Northumbria Police lasting just as long, Kirsty was in a prime position to deliver the change. She spent several years at the Forensic Science Service at Wetherby as a Senior Forensic Biologist, during which time she also managed a sexual offence service for Northumbria, Durham and Cleveland, and worked as a reporting scientist on the force’s hugely successful sexual offences cold case review operation, Operation Phoenix in the 2000s. 

After spells at the College of Policing Forensic Training Team, and the National Crime Agency’s Major Crime Operational Support and Science and Innovation teams, Kirsty joined Northumbria Police as Scientific Support Manager in 2016.

Kirsty says:

“My relationship with Northumbria goes back years – my parents were both serving police officers in the force when they met. I know I have the trust and support of our Chief Officer as we embrace this significant change and I have some fantastic teams within the department who share the passion and responsibility for doing what we need to do. I struggle to think of many departments within Northumbria Police that do not have a relationship with Forensics Services in some way, we are a force resource from operations to support. These are exciting times for us.”

Making the change

The formal launch date for the Forensic Services Department was 5th October, bringing together 104 members of Police Staff and 11 Police Officers within a new governance structure. The change was delivered on impressively short timescales.

“The proposal was put together in January, became a formal project in March and was formally launched six months later,” Kirsty says. “But it didn’t involve any physical estates moves and, because of our alliance, we were already used to operating in an agile way. What it involved was new governance, involving the creation of all the new IT and HR infrastructure, for example new role definitions and management structure.”

“The new department runs with a Head of Forensic Services to oversee the strategic elements and then we have brought together four senior management posts, for example, for the DFU, forensic quality management, and so on.”

What challenges faced the team while bringing the department together?

“Of course, there is a big culture change here. Our Forensic Collision Investigators, for example, are police officers who we have moved over from Operations into our Crime Scene Investigation Unit. The key thing is everyone was fully involved in consultation, people are pleased to see investment in their forensic professions and see it as a positive step. They’re all an important part of making the department a success and it feels rights.

“I couldn’t be more proud to lead the teams in this exciting new phase. They’ve all embraced the changes and supported the transition over the last few months. We’ll continue to work together to strengthen and enhance our forensic capabilities.”

There are other challenges for the new department, such as having to set-up and embed performance management systems and develop their strategic framework and forensic vision in alignment with continued national strategies.

The benefits of the new approach are clear: greater efficiency, more resilience and sustainability to withstand change, greater adaptability to local and regional challenges, and ultimately providing a better service to policing and the criminal justice system.

Looking to the future

Despite the fast implementation of the project, Kirsty is clear that the new department isn’t a quick fix nor something that can be undertaken lightly. She says:

“The last four years have been the long background to this, and it’s only because of the hard work in all of the units, laying the groundwork, that we’ve had the opportunity to do it this year.

“I’m happy to talk about why we’ve done it and the journey we’ve been on. I’ve had other forces get in touch and say they are looking at bringing digital forensics or FCI into their own forensics units. This is our way of doing it, but it might not work for everybody.”

What does the future hold?

“The way I look at it is: we’ve made significant transformation improvements in recent years, we’re on track and now we’ve got to keep going,” Kirsty says. “It isn’t about ticking the box to gain accreditation, we’ve got to continue to deliver in a responsive way led by strategy. There’s an awful lot of work still to do in all units, including new accreditation challenges for CSI, collision, fire investigation, SARCs, Custody and so on. We have to keep strengthening the department and deliver what we promised. And then, in a year or two and we'll be having a conversation about what next.”

About this article

‘Force Focus’ is a series of in-depth articles with people across the FCN membership, sharing insights and ideas from one force to others. If you’d like to share a story from your organisation for a future Force Focus, please contact us.