If you go down in the woods today…you might meet students on one of Bournemouth University's Forensic Science and Investigation courses, reports Joël Lacey
Published in June ’13
Alex Otto, who is a Demonstrator in Forensic Science at Bournemouth University’s School of Applied Sciences, has been banned from watching police procedural programmes with her family. They had had enough of her saying ‘you just wouldn’t do it like that’, or worse yet, revealing who did it.
Our paths first cross at a practical session, deep in the woods at the end of an unmade road. Students are milling around in disposable forensic suits – although the suits have proven to be popular for nights out, so are not always disposed of. In several cordoned off areas, various deer carcasses – and all-too-realistic ersatz human corpses – are surrounded by little yellow markers, placed by the students, to indicate the location of items – clues as to what occurred – scattered, around the scene. These items have been placed by Alex and her team, often cunningly hidden: ‘they haven’t spotted the one halfway up the tree trunk, yet,’ Alex says softly, with a passably good Bond-villain smile.
The undergraduates are collecting evidence – or at this stage, collecting evidence of evidence by photographing the items in situ and noting down what it is and where it was found. A different group is collecting flies on a deer carcass as, by noting the type and developmental of the fly, they can establish, in combination with factors like weather and temperature, how long the corpse has been there.
Graduates of the courses run at Bournemouth go on largely either to be what were once known to avid crime thriller watchers as SOCOs (scene of crime officers), but are now more broadly known as CSIs (Crime Scene Investigators), or lab-based Forensic experts. The distinction between the two may not be immediately obvious, but an illustrative explanation is given by Alex in terms of how a CSI might be called upon to give evidence in a courtroom: ‘You might be asked by a barrister about fingerprints,’ she says. ‘You can, as a CSI, talk about how they were collected, but you do not answer questions about whose those fingerprints are. That is the job of a forensic fingerprint specialist.’
Alex speaks from experience as she is no ivory tower academic. She joined the South African Police force at 18, worked in their flying squad and was one of the five founder members of the first Child Protection unit, based in Johannesburg. After moving back to England, she joined Wiltshire Police and, as well as being a qualified Crime Scene Manager, has a BSc in Forensic Investigation.
In an unassuming, aging building on a roundabout on Lansdowne Road in Bournemouth, Alex hones her Bond villain impression yet further by sitting in front of a bank of monitors: ‘I can watch whatever the students are doing from here, she says.’
‘Here’ is the combined seminar room/office at Bournemouth University’s Crime House. This is not a disreputable block of student accommodation, but a very flexible series of rooms which have variously been laid out as a crystal meth lab, the scene of an unexplained death and even a building society office which has been robbed at gunpoint. All of the rooms are finished off with touches of realism: books and videos brought from home, kitchen implements, even larder items in the cupboards, all to add a further degree of realism. It also appears that all criminals, and indeed victims of crime, smoke the same brand of cigarette. Empty packets (which are donated by a member of the Applied Sciences team) and drug paraphernalia (which are not!) are strewn here and there in a room with the body (model) of the victim of an unexplained death, and one of a likely murder scene. This attention to detail is one of the reasons why, two years ago, Alex won the Vice Chancellor’s Awards 2011 ‘Team of the Year’ prize, along with her colleagues from the Applied Sciences Laboratory and Technical Team led by Dr Iain Green.
As well as the Crime House, the school also has access to Streetwise, at which they can construct full-scale crime scenes, thanks to the safety centre’s street, beach and domestic environments. The department’s head, Dr David Osselton, is an expert in poisons and drugs, which presumably keeps inter-office rivalry down to a polite minimum.
It is not quite a case of life imitating art, but Alex recounts the story of when the team put a clapped-out car in the car park, which they hoped to use as a crime scene for drugs usage. ‘Over the summer break, a couple of users actually moved into it, so, when we came back,’ she remembers, ‘there was all kinds of drugs paraphernalia for us to examine!’
In what must, from time to time, be a quite gruesome occupation, it is clear that a healthy sense of humour is a key factor – along with a very broad range of skills and a determination to process a crime scene with methodical diligence.
It is a time of great change in the forensic world in the UK, but those Bournemouth graduates learning their skills with Alex are undoubtedly very well placed to take advantage, whatever the public/private landscape ends up looking like.