Words - Personality Stories - Beyond reasonable doubt (1996)


Beyond reasonable doubt (1996)

The forensic photographer, who heads the ‘trail-blazing’ Scientific Support Department of the Derbyshire Constabulary, is one of three senior non-service appointees whose exceptional skills are appreciated by the Chief Constable and his team.

Consulted by Police Forces world-wide, Roger Summers has many other skills. Talking to John Chillingworth he revealed just how much, in criminal investigation, the police service value scientific support. The task of Scientific Support is to help prove every case beyond reasonable doubt.

As TV’s Detective Inspector Morse raises an eyebrow, steps over yet another body and retires to the pub, shadowy figures appear, cameras, powder and gadgetry in hand to provide confirmation of his brilliant deductions.

The ‘real-life’ story, in which forensic photography and associated disciplines ‘star’, is very different. Writ large, every day of the year, are the meticulously detailed findings of the support staff serving the Police, at County level, throughout the country. First in the field Derbyshire’s SSD has acquired an outstanding reputation for its professionalism.

Scientific Support covers many more skills than forensic photography. It operates alongside forensic science, fingerprint detection, the chemical development laboratory, the TV unit and technical support. It may not be surprising, then, to find Roger Summers has seventy staff.

A former President of the BIPP, he is one of the country’s leading practitioners whose skills are practised for the Police Service. Being a world renowned expert on forensic odontology, (the study and comparison of teeth patterns) he is called upon for assistance by other police forces in the UK, as well as in the US, Canada, France and Germany.

To demonstrate the value placed upon scientific support, along with the Directors of Administration and Finance at Constabulary Headquarters, Roger Summers’ post is equivalent to that of Detective Chief Superintendent.

Training to a high standard
Photography is an important element in the intensive training courses for Scientific Support staff, run by the Police National Training Centre for Scientific Support, Durham.

A student arriving there for training will have met City and Guilds educational requirements, or hold a BIPP professional qualification. He or she will also have demonstrated particularly stable personalities, having been aptitude tested, a routine that includes a specially formulated computerised system.

In their time on the course, students must further prove they have the application and proficiency for the scientific support role. The training covers a much broader canvas than forensic photography, it includes photography for training aids, portraiture, scene of crime and criminal damage. In addition, forensic science, fingerprint detection, study in the chemical development laboratory, technical support and the TV unit all contribute to future support staff skills.

It being a comprehensive training for a demanding and responsible post, ancillary requirements embrace the correct and successful presentation of evidence in Court; a skill that tests the stability and level-headedness of every student.

When the training course is successfully completed the parent Police Force has the assurance that the trainees can competently handle a wide range of photographic and scientific support tasks. Using their newly honed techniques, they will be ready to provide evidence extracted from glass, paint, blood, footprints and instruments.

Forensic photography - the silent witness
The Law of Disclosure means that the scientific support photographs, slides and negatives, the silent witnesses, have to be meticulously handled, stored and filed. They could, of course, be called upon at any time in a Court of Law.

Employing advances in photographic technology far removed from image manipulation and computerised enhancement, the forensic photographer will be found producing images that a ‘villain’ would have great difficulty in questioning.

For example, fingerprint evidence is routine today, but it dates from beyond the dawn of photography. The unique nature of fingerprints was first established as early as 1684. Until Fox-Talbot and his contemporaries came on the scene, the forerunners of today’s police service had no way of utilising their uniqueness. Nevertheless, for more than 100 years, photography of fingerprints has been an aid to the successful prosecution of suspects. The recent introduction of DNA testing, also used by forensic scientists, has a similar role to play in establishing the truth.

Older theories, like the 19th century idea that Jack the Ripper might be identified by photographing the last image registered on the cornea of the victim’s eyes, proved to be less successful in its time.

Nevertheless, despite a ‘bad press’, the British are still a nation of inventors, so the SSD spends time evaluating new ideas and prototype equipment. Some would work well in a ‘James Bond’ movie. Others may find their way into police service after a long proving period. However, the SSD always has to remember the heavy hand of the Courts, ready to challenge anything that could falsify an image.

The painstaking detail
Nowadays, after a reported crime, the scientific support team start their work. Picking their way through the scene searching for evidence, one of the team may be found carefully unwrapping a thin sheet of silver-faced material. Attaching it by an electrical lead to an anonymous looking machine, the sheet is laid on what appears to be a perfectly clean carpet, he stands back.

At the touch of a button, up to 15,000 volts pass through the sheet. On lifting it, the silver sheet is processed by the machine and a ‘wonder of science’ reveals the perfect impression of a footprint.

In the field and in the laboratory, photographic and lighting techniques contribute to the provision of forensic evidence. Robot cameras are used to examine unsafe structures; a disused mine shaft, for example.
Thermal imaging of the kind used by the Fire Service may be brought into play. On the Major Crime Vehicles, operated by Scientific Support Departments, another superb high powered light source would be used by a graduate chemist with a photographic training, to illuminate otherwise invisible evidence.

The Quasar, a laser light source, using an infinite variety of filters can illuminate the smallest detail of fluorescing evidence, enabling a photographic record to be made.

Infra-red, too, has an important part to play in examination of charred remains and ultra-violet illumination detects fluorescent dye on clothing and other surfaces. When searching for disturbed ground undetectable to the human eye, the area screams out for investigation when photographed with false-colour infra-red film.

When a spent bullet and a suspect firearm are found, ballistic comparisons may be needed. Specialist treatment is called for and the the Scientific Support staff can call on the expertise of the national Forensic Science Service. Equipped to make the tests and photographic comparisons, they produce graphic evidence for the courts.

So, what unfolds in Roger Summers’ word picture of the application of photography in policing, is technical diversity and dedicated professionalism.

The challenge for the future
For Roger Summers and his contemporaries, with a major slice of their constabulary’s budget to administer, the responsibility net is widely spread. Apart from the contribution photography makes to preparation of forensic evidence, scientific support has involvement with video cameras used in unmarked police cars.

Covert surveillance, using both video and still cameras are further skills the head of Scientific Support finds time to encourage.

Also within his remit are the technically excellent automatic speed cameras, designed to trap the undisciplined motorist. Their performance is impressive - the evidence irrefutable; so much so that convictions have even been made where a number plate was damaged. By enlarging the image, the supplier of the vehicle was identified and the owner traced.

If you are thinking of moving into the forensic field, start now! You have a long way to go.

Roger Summers, typical of colleagues attached to other constabularies, started as a trainee photographer in Mid-Anglia in 1966. He went on to Scotland Yard to complete his formal training then, because the chief constable, Sir Walter Stansfield, had established a prototype Scientific Support Department in Derbyshire, he joined as a founder member in 1972.

Since then, of course, the police service has seen major developments in forensic detection. “It’s a demanding life,”, Roger Summers says, “but for anyone with an interest in scientific photography, there’s much professional satisfaction in helping prove a case beyond reasonable doubt”

© Copyright John Chillingworth