Part 4: Using forensic techniques to investigate dwelling burglary

In this Part, we discuss:

  • how the Police were using forensic techniques in 2001 for investigating dwelling burglaries; and
  • our findings in 2005.

Using forensic techniques in 2001

We concluded in our 2001 report that the Police were unlikely to be making the best use of forensic science techniques in their crime investigations. The Districts’ use of forensic tools and services varied, with no clear rationale for the differences. Further, there was no systematic resource planning for the forensic services used, based on cost and effectiveness.

We recommended that Districts:

  • set priorities for the use of various forensic techniques on the basis of cost and effectiveness; and
  • improve their resource planning for the use of forensic science.

Our findings in 2005

A number of forensic and scene examination techniques may be used by Police to investigate dwelling burglaries. These include:

  • fingerprints (including palm prints);
  • shoe prints;
  • scene analysis using photography;
  • document examination; and
  • DNA analysis of specimens left at the scene (such as blood, hair, saliva, or skin cells).

Fingerprints have traditionally been used for burglary investigation, and remain the most important evidence source. The importance of gathering DNA samples has increased in recent years with advances in DNA technology. The Police undertake fingerprint analysis internally at 4 Fingerprint Sections around the country, while the Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited (ESR)12 is the sole supplier to the Police of forensic science services (including DNA analysis) for criminal investigations.

Resource planning for forensic services at Police national level

The Police budget for ESR forensic services has increased from $9.9 million in 2000-01 to $18.8 million for 2005-06. This lets the Police make greater use of forensic services for criminal investigations. The annual number of cases submitted to ESR for forensic analysis has increased from 6532 in the year to 30 June 2002, to 9466 in 2004.

A new contract was signed in 2005 between the Police and ESR for the provision of forensic services. This agreement took effect from 1 July 2005, and is scheduled to last 3 years. It has replaced the contract in place at the time of our 2001 audit.

The new contract has a substantially different costing structure to its predecessor. ESR now charges the Police for forensic services based on the process used. For example, a forensic process such as DNA analysis of a sample from a burglary scene has a set service charge. Similarly, analysis of physical evidence such as firearms, fibres or chemicals, also has a set charge based on the process used for forensic analysis.

The old contract between the Police and ESR used a costing structure based on case types. The fees charged by ESR for submissions were based on the type of incident that the Police had attended, regardless of the amount of forensic evidence to be analysed. For example, there were set fees for burglaries, assaults, and homicides.

In our view, the new costing structure for forensic services provided by ESR will produce significant benefits for the Police. For forensic samples from burglaries, the new agreement offers substantial cost savings for each case, and more transparency in expected costs. For most burglary cases, the DNA analysis will be subject to a set fee.

Quality controls over the use of forensics

The Police have put in place quality control measures to counter the risk of poor quality or non-cost-effective samples being submitted to ESR from Districts. This was an issue identified in our 2001 audit. Since November 2004, the Police have employed a former senior detective, based within ESR, to provide quality control over submissions.

All the case study Districts we examined now have “gatekeepers” to review and approve each sample submitted to ESR for analysis. The aim is to ensure both quality and cost control. These gatekeepers are normally senior detectives or heads of forensics (or their delegates), who are knowledgeable about the required quality for submissions. They also tend to be responsible for the District forensic budget, or know what that budget is. In our view, this is an effective way for Districts to help ensure quality and budgetary control of their use of forensic services.

In the Districts and Areas we looked at, Scene of Crime Officers (SOCOs) tried to attend every dwelling burglary scene, or identified which scenes they could more usefully attend. SOCOs are specialist Police staff trained in obtaining physical and forensic evidence from crime scenes (such as fingerprints, DNA samples, or securing evidential exhibits). In some Areas, SOCOs attend burglary scenes with other specialist burglary investigation officers.13 Having SOCOs attend burglary scenes partly reflects a greater Police focus on reducing high incidence crimes. It is also another form of quality control, because SOCOs are usually more skilled at gathering physical and forensic evidence than general duty officers.

The effect of technological and legislative changes

Technological advances and legislative changes mean that DNA is now substantially easier to obtain from offenders than was the case in 2001. The Criminal Investigations (Bodily Samples) Amendment Act 2003 contains 3 main changes that have increased the ease with which Police can obtain DNA from suspected or convicted burglars:

  • burglary was made an offence for which Police can compulsorily take DNA samples from suspects;
  • Police were given the power to obtain DNA samples from imprisoned burglars; and
  • the collection of DNA samples using buccal (mouth) swabs was permitted.

Under the Act, suspects can now administer their own DNA swabs with a simple saliva test (before this, collecting DNA meant taking blood samples and using medical personnel). Collecting DNA samples is now cheaper, and there are more samples on the national DNA database. The number of DNA profiles on the national DNA database has grown from 24,713 as at 30 June 2002, to 55,829 at 30 September 2005. For the last quarter of 2001, 38% of the samples taken from crime scenes were linked to profiles on the DNA database. The rate has grown to 56% for the 3 months to the end of September 2005.

12: ESR is a Crown Research Institute that provides a range of commercial scientific services.

13: The advantages of having specialist Police staff attend burglary scenes are discussed in Part 6.

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