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“Flexible standards” in crime scene photography Photograph made by one of the participating crime scene investigators

“Flexible standards” in crime scene photography

In the USA and the Netherlands several organizations work on the improvement of forensic sciences. Development of codes, guidelines and protocols is part of their mission. Do Dutch crime scene investigators think (further) standardization is a good thing?

This week, the newly created (American) National Commission on Forensic Science met for the first time. The commission aims to improve the practice of forensic science, among other things by developing uniform codes, requirements for formal training and certification. According to The Crime Report, it’s about time: after so many forensics scandals, uniform standards and regulations is the least you can do.

There is still a lot in Dutch forensics and the criminal justice system that can be enhanced. Several books and articles (for example in the Dutch journal Expertise en Recht), as well as known miscarriages of justice point this out. However, the Netherlands seem to have a much longer tradition and therefore more experience with these types of standards than the USA have. This ideally would also mean that the forensics standards, guidelines or norms have been adapted and improved based on methodologically rigid research, systematically gathered experiences and so on. But we do not live in an ideal world, with limitless time and resources. Thus, though the Netherlands might have a lead on the USA in this respect, there is still work to do here as well. Not only technical and legal, but also many social-scientific research questions are still unanswered. For example, studies on how crime scene investigators make decisions at a crime scene are scarce. And how long can one actually do one’s job properly in a disposable suit when it’s hot? Who decides in practice which traces are being collected and when and how they are being processed? And - back to forensic standards - how often do crime scene investigators and forensic labs not comply?

Our recently published report, financed by the Police Science and Research Programme, gives some insights on decision making and practices in crime scene photography. The report’s findings show that knowing about guidelines, norms or standards does not always imply that the crime scene investigators act accordingly: with certain standards, there is a clear gap between knowing and doing (borrowed from Pfeffer & Sutton 2000). It’s not easy to turn knowledge into action, as everybody who recently made New Year’s resolutions knows.

In interviews, the crime scene investigators who participated in this study, give several (implicit and explicit) reasons for their (or their colleagues’ reasons interestingly enough) noncompliance. We also asked them what could be done to improve crime scene photography. Their answers can be grouped in three themes: standardisation, investments (in people and materials), and learning by doing and receiving feedback.

So, standardisation as a tool for improving crime scene photography. Not only standardisation of the photography at the crime scene itself, but they also referred to standardisation of processing the photographs and producing the final record (in Dutch: proces-verbaal). The participating crime scene investigators were keen though to point out that it should still be possible to make other choices and decisions than the forensic standards would prescribe. No crime scene is the same and you need to be flexible, they argued.

On the one hand, crime scene investigators in this study did not comply to standards and gave several more or less convincing reasons for not doing so. On the other hand, they ask for more standardisation and think this would be good for the professionalisation and quality of crime scene photography. But without losing the possibility to deviate from the standards when their professional judgment requires them to do so.

This apparent paradox puzzles me. And it certainly is a challenge for the people currently involved in the project of restructuring and improving forensic norms.

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