England: Plans to recruit digital forensics volunteers criticised by experts

Plans to recruit volunteers to work in digital forensics with a major police force have been criticised by experts as a “disaster waiting to happen”.

West Midlands Police has invited applications from volunteers, who would receive “hands on experience” at crime scenes and help analyse distressing and indecent images such as child sexual abuse imagery, The Times reports.

The move, which represents a major expansion of the force’s existing volunteer scheme from neighbourhood watch patrols, puppy sitting and museum work, has drawn outrage from forensics experts.

Sam Raincock, an expert IT witness, wrote on Twitter that her “immediate concern is welfare”

She said: “Working in digital forensics in the criminal sector is difficult. You will see things you have no idea how you will react to, regardless of who you are and what you think you can cope with. Sadly some of the material ends careers.”

Ms Raincock added: “I’ve worked on many serious imagery cases (with their own issues) then I worked on a murder. I was doing cell site analysis! I had to go to the scene and I froze.

“Luckily a colleague was with me and captured the network (RF) readings. I had nightmares for weeks after and will never forget what the victim looked like and the scene etc. I never expected it.

“However, if I needed time off or counselling, the company I worked for would have supported me and paid me! What would happen to a volunteer? Could they even tell someone in the department they don’t even work in? Would they get paid to be off their regular work and given ongoing support? This work is not for volunteers!”

However, Michelle Painter, assistant director of forensic services at West Midlands Police, said volunteers “present us with a fantastic opportunity”.

She said: “We have the opportunity to use highly skilled individuals, who are experts outside of policing, but with the necessary experience and expertise to help our investigations. Equally, the volunteers themselves are developing their experience and using their skills to help others and bring more people to justice.”

Ms Painter added: “Their welfare is an important consideration and is reflected in the age restriction and the recruitment process. Occasionally, some investigations do have an element of investigating indecent images but that is not the only aspect of the digital forensics service.

“This is a consideration for our full time staff and the wellbeing signposting available to our employees is also available to our volunteers, including six monthly clinical supervision appointments.

“We appreciate that this line of work is not for everyone which is why we are explicit around the potential exposure to indecent and distressing imagery.”

Tags: forensics

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