24th May 2023
Darryl Preston is Police and Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and also the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) Forensic and Biometric Lead. In this guest blog for the Forensic Capability Network (FCN), he sets out his views on forensics in policing.
Last year when I was asked to take on the role of leading the forensic portfolio for the APCC, I didn’t hesitate. And here’s why.
Sometimes forensics may not seem as significant, or dare I say even as interesting, as other areas in policing. But the reality is that if something doesn’t go right in the forensics world then that impacts the whole criminal justice system, and I mean every part of it. We could see incidents where serious cases are chucked out of court and the potential for miscarriages of justice to occur.
So, forensics is absolutely vital for achieving justice for victims of crime. But the portfolio is facing challenges, and I want to set out what I see as the three most significant.
First, the marketplace, by which I mean the provision of forensic services from the private sector to policing. Before becoming a PCC I worked in the APCC itself overseeing various portfolios including forensics. I didn’t think forensics would take up much of my time, but it probably ended up as 90 percent of my time—because of issues in the marketplace.
The past few years have seen various critical incidents, from cyber-attacks to quality errors to data manipulation, and we’ve nearly seen the market collapse on several occasions. We need to create a robust and sustainable supply of services, and I applaud efforts being made across policing, the FCN, BlueLight Commercial and forensic services providers, all working towards this. The market is a key area that I encourage other PCCs to double-check their force’s position and understand why that’s their position.
Second, digital forensics. We know that practically every crime leaves some kind of digital footprint, so policing needs to be efficient at dealing with that going forwards. This is particularly true in cases of rape and serious sexual offences, where there has been much national debate over recent years.
I believe we’re moving in the right direction since the government’s response last year to the Rape Review. There are excellent examples such as the mobile digital forensic triage units—or ‘cyber vans’—trialled in Bedfordshire and now being rolled out to 24 forces.
Finally, accreditation. This is another area I really encourage other PCCs to look at in their own forces. All forensic services need to be accredited and meet certain quality standards, and that applies to crime scene investigation, fingerprints, digital forensics, sexual assault referral centres and other disciplines. We have a Forensic Science Regulator who has set deadlines and has now been given statutory powers.
The risk if a force isn’t accredited is that that will be the first question the defence will ask when the evidence goes to court. Some forces are behind on meeting the requirements by the deadline, so this is something that absolutely needs attention.
For me, forensics is a vital—and fascinating—part of policing which makes a significant impact on criminal justice.
There’s great work happening locally and nationally, but difficult challenges too. I can’t emphasise enough that policing, along with partners, must work together to overcome these challenges, ensuring the United Kingdom retains its proud heritage of being at the forefront of forensic science, keeping our communities safe.