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New VAWG forensic triage technology to be piloted

A new system has been developed to improve forensic evidence collection in VAWG cases.

New technology to improve the recovery and analysis of trace evidence in VAWG cases is due to be piloted. 

Funded by the government’s Defence and Security Accelerator, the project is aimed at the creation of a ‘triage toolkit’ for use by all forces and forensic providers. 

The system comprises two new pieces of technology; ‘Easylift ®’ tape, which allows for analysis of large scale samples on the tape without the need for extraction, and a ‘SMMART’ microscope (Spectral Multimodal Microscope for the Automated Recognition of Traces), which uses automation and hyperspectral imaging to detect and analyse particulates. 

The analysis of a tape should take around five minutes. 

There is a third element to the project - triage software which will be able to provide information on possible activities that led to the resultant evidence. It will be informed by actors re-enacting common domestic violence scenarios and the analysis of trace evidence from their clothing. 

The project is being led by the Forensic Capability Network and Staffordshire University. 

Professor Claire Gwinnett from Staffordshire University explained to Police Oracle: “Currently, the manual process of examining fibres, and in fact most particulates including body fluids, is that they would be manually searched for on a tape but would need to be extracted from the tape for analysis as the tape causes interference in the examination. 

“The Easylift ® tape, patented by Staffordshire University, has been designed to be ‘transparent’ - it means that analysis can be done in situ, without the time consuming task of extraction.” 

Extraction also gives rise to the possibility of contamination or loss of evidence - something the new technology will therefore mitigate as well. 

The next step is the automated microscope - which allows for high resolution scanning and algorithms to detect different particulates (blood, sand, glass, hair etc) - it’s something that manually would be too time-consuming.  

Such analysis produces large quantities of data which gives rise to the need for the triage system - currently being designed. 

The triage process will be able to help identifying the source of the sample (did it come from the suspect) but also provide information on the activity (how did those fibres get there and does it support/refute individuals’ statements). It will be informed by mock-up scenarios conducted by actors. 

Prof Gwinnett said: “This has not been possible before due to the amount of time it takes to manually find and analyses these samples. In order to ‘map’ a victims/suspects clothing to the detail needed, multiple tapes would be required and as such would be impossible in terms of time. 

“Now that we have an automated approach, the generation of such data is possible. We are going to find out using this set-up how particulates transfer in common contact scenarios seen in VAWG crimes by using role players for this who are trained in mixed martial arts.” 

One example where this new system may be useful is in the context of domestic violence. In these cases, the presence of evidence alone can be explained away by legitimate contact. 

Further understanding of how the evidence was located in certain places, means forensic evidence can be applied more robustly. If a victim claims they were grabbed by the shoulder and thrown to the floor - forensic evidence can show up contact points and concentrations from carpet fibres and DNA from the attacker. 

The system has value outside of VAWG crimes and can potentially be used in any crime where contact between people or with objects has occurred. 

The idea is that officers will be able to use this to help make decisions, but ultimately it will be forensic scientists who take the evidence to court. 

Researchers are currently calling on forces to take part in a pilot due to begin next month. The project is set to run until 2024. 

FCN’s Research Manager, Dr Carolyn Lovell, said: “What we don’t know at the minute is where this project will best fit - in a forensic policing environment as a screening tool or as a Forensic Service Provider tool for use once an item has been submitted. 

“We also need further consideration on what evidence we need to be looking at - fibres, DNA - is there other evidence we could train the microscope to search for?

“We’re making sure we develop it from the practitioners' perspective at the front, rather than getting the technology and seeing where we can best squeeze it in. We’re getting in front of the technology rather than working behind it.” 

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