Police leaders working in forensics have identified technology and data challenges as the highest risk area facing the sector, in a new national assessment published by the Forensic Capability Network on behalf of the NPCC.

This is the first time a nationwide forensic strategic threat and risk assessment of its kind has been conducted by UK policing – and the report’s authors propose developing a national control strategy for forensics.

In 2022-23, FCN conducted a series of in-depth qualitative interviews with police forensic teams to build the national picture. Anonymous respondents were asked to identify the greatest risks and threats facing forensic services, and rank these on a five-scale rating from ‘minimal’ to ‘significant’. 

The four key risks set out in FCN’s 27-page report are: maintaining pace with technological changes and data challenges; quality matters including complying with regulations; economic pressures; and workforce recruitment and retention.

Summarising the pressures facing forensic teams, one anonymous respondent quoted in the assessment said:

“We are already swamped with demand, technology changes, quality pressures, and losing skilled staff that is sometimes preventing us from doing the job to the best of our ability. I think future demand and capacity changes will see these pressures increase, and unless we collectively address the shared pain then forces may sink into digital forensic failure.”

Overall, digital forensics was seen as a higher risk than physical forensics, being rated on the highest level of ‘significant’ rather than the mid-level ‘elevated’. Some of the tech-related risks raised included a lack of understanding among investigators of a technology’s capabilities and limitations, and the inability to interpret complex forensics data results.

On risks around quality, respondents were concerned that complying with new regulations was damaging service delivery, with higher abstractions of operational staff meaning fewer crime scene investigators able to attend scenes, and a sense it was “killing the love of the job”. Nationally fewer than one in seven police forces (15.6%) are currently accredited to perform all aspects of CSI activity.

In terms of economic pressures, one police force reported that marketplace pricing had increased by 20% while in-force forensic budgets increased by only 7%.

For people-related risks, which were on average seen as least risky at either ‘low’ or ‘elevated’, respondents flagged issues such as losing staff to the private sector or neighbouring forces, pay disparity, vetting delays, and limited access to training.

The report recommends that a national control strategy for forensics should be set up, comprising a national performance framework and a standard operating model for forensics. It also proposes the Cabinet Office recognises the forensic supply chain as part of critical national infrastructure.

FCN’s Shelley Wilson, who led the interviews and drafted the report, said:

Our findings have come directly from police forensic teams and will be no surprise to the practitioners working in this area day-to-day – but they may be a wake-up call for senior leaders and those in wider policing and government. I’m very grateful to everyone who gave their time and honesty. This report is only the beginning, and we intend to track annually how these risks develop and improve our research going forwards.”

Established in 2020, FCN is policing’s national network for forensic science in England and Wales, with a focus on quality standards, scientific development, and marketplace support. It is funded by the Home Office police grant at £3.2m in 2023/24 and employs 35 people through host force Dorset Police.

Introducing the assessment, NPCC Forensic Lead, Chief Constable Nick Dean, said:

“Without exception, forensic services are intrinsically linked to operational policing, playing a critical role within the investigation and detection of crime and elimination of the innocent.

“Consolidating this national understanding into a FORSTRA provides an overview of current and future threats and risks to forensic science, which may impact on victims of crime, policing demand, and our ability to respond to government priorities.”

The 2023 national forensic strategic threat and risk assessment, or FORSTRA, is available here.