Collision and crime scene surveying – are you ready for the new ISO/IEC standards?

The new validation process puts ‘the science behind the science’ of investigating crime scenes and collisions. But what does the accreditation process involve, and will the benefits outweigh the challenges?

Collision and crime scene surveying

By 1 October 2020, crime scene and collision investigators, working in criminal cases, whether police or private, must conform to two global standards. Their laboratory testing must be accredited to ISO/IEC 17025, and their scene examination programmes accredited to ISO/IEC 17020.

So why is this happening, and why does the validation process matter?

At present, each police force in the UK has its own standard operating procedure and quality-management system. Types and brands of equipment vary widely between forces, or two forces may have the same kit but use it differently. Or different individuals within the same force may calibrate and use the same piece of equipment differently.

Clearly, despite the best of intentions, there is huge potential for widely differing results. If two investigators were to collect, process and store the forensic evidence from two identical crime scenes, would they achieve the same results? In principle, they should, the chances are that they won’t, and nor would they necessarily be reproducible. After all, this is the evidence on which we build expert opinions for the courts; it can be what leads to right or wrong convictions for the right or wrong suspects. So it matters.

And yet the current lack of standardisation can lead to wrong decisions by the courts, or even cases being thrown out for want of reliable evidence. And what we all need – the police, the criminal justice system and the public – is a consistent level of confidence in consistent results, achieved through the consistent application of processes and technology.

Implications for 3D scanning

Nowadays, surveying a crime or collision scene has been made simpler, faster and more accurate thanks to 3D laser (or LiDAR) scanning technology, made by companies such as Leica Geosystems. Colin Humphreys, a recently retired forensic investigator with Warwickshire Police, knows how quickly scanners can complete the work: “After a shooting incident, the town centre was closed off and we needed to get the streets reopened as quickly as possible. So I made a call and within a couple of hours, someone from Leica Geosystems had arrived with an RTC360 scanner; in under an hour, we’d scanned the entire scene using more than 25 stations. This was the first time the RTC360 had been used at a crime scene, and actually the data was being used in Crown Court this February – well done, Leica Geosystems!”

A significant part of the new validation process will involve how and when such surveying equipment is calibrated, used and maintained. Dr Anya Hunt is CEO of the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (CSFS), and has been working closely with the police service to help them prepare for accreditation. “With the requirements of ISO/IEC 17020 and the Forensic Science Regulator’s Codes of Practice and Conduct, instrumental methods must be validated,” she explains.

She has been working with Leica Geosystems to establish how surveying equipment needs to be managed and used, so that there will be clarity for crime scene investigators around how to comply with the new standard. “Leica Geosystems appear to be taking it incredibly seriously. They’ve already looked at the requirements for validation and verification for using particular types of equipment, in both static and dynamic situations, and for understanding the associated challenges.”

Leica Geosystems is helping the police to prepare

From the police side, Frances Senior had been liaising with Dr Hunt at the CSFS in order to help prepare forces in England and Wales for accreditation. Although she works for West Yorkshire Police, she is on secondment to the National Police Chiefs Council, leading on forensic collision investigation.

Frances explains why Leica Geosystems was one of the manufacturers invited to work on the accreditation project: “They’re one of the main suppliers of scanning technology to policing, and they were very kind to accept. Leica Geosystems have been very helpful in sharing their research and expertise and have been available throughout to support the project and understand the process of forensic regulation. They can guide the police through some of the difficult areas where we perhaps don’t have the expertise or capacity internally. They’ve been very generous and hugely supportive with the method validation work that we're undertaking.”

Mike Skicko, the UK public safety lead for crime scene and collision investigation at Leica Geosystems, is in charge of the company’s participation in the validation project. “We’ve been working closely with police forces across the UK for some years now. We know investigators well and we understand what sort of challenges they’re up against on a daily basis. We listen to their feedback and we are happy to support them as and when necessary.”

“Validation is going to be an extra hurdle for them, so we want to help make it as easy as possible for them to achieve compliance and get back to the normal run of things. It’s a privilege to have been invited to assist, and I really do wish forces the very best in making the transition.”

How challenging will accreditation be?

Dr Hunt understands that not everyone is looking forward to the accreditation process. “There are negative perceptions around the ongoing workload, but actually once you get used to doing the same method reproducibly, you’ll save time and effort – because you’re doing the same thing every time, rather than perhaps not knowing exactly what you’re doing, or using a number of methods, or doing it in a non-reproducible way. Quality is there to support us, and to give the public and the courts confidence in the work that we do.”

Dan Sharp trained as a surveyor before joining the imaging unit at West Yorkshire Police, where he manages a team of crime scene surveyors. He accepts that validation will be hard work to begin with, but sees its value. “It will be a lot of work initially achieving the ISO accreditation, and it’s going to have an operational impact on our day-to-day work. It's a necessity though, and will help us improve and standardise our outputs.

“It'll protect our officers and staff, so we can go into court and say we have an ISO certificate to prove that our process is accurate and valid. Whereas currently, the emphasis is on the officer’s experience and their expertise – but it's getting near the time where that is not going to be sufficient. You're going to need some accreditation paperwork behind your expertise, and that's going to be the process ISO accreditation.”

Colin Humphreys (ex- Warwickshire Police), agrees. “There needs to be confidence in anyone using that kit, so at the end they can say, ‘I used it correctly, I followed the methodology, and that's going to be accepted by the courts. In the long-term, it can only be positive.’ ”

“The witness box is a lonely place. You stand there alone and all you have is the report you’ve written. Compliance with the standards will mean you can have more confidence in your own work. You can stand there feeling a little less isolated.”
– Dr Anya Hunt, CEO, Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences

“As one of the main suppliers of scanning technology to policing, Leica Geosystems has been very generous in supplying expertise and technology to this project.”
– Frances Senior, NPCC specialist capability lead for forensic collision investigation

“Leica Geosystems very much appear to be ahead of the curve at the moment in their understanding of the need for validation and verification.”
– Dr Anya Hunt, CEO, Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences

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