'Time out' key to forensic progress

By Mike Houlahan

Forensic scientists need to be freed up from solving crimes so they can research how their talents can best be used to fight crime, an Institute of Environmental Science and Research leader says.

Principal scientist John Buckleton says local investigators have an excellent clearance rate in solving crimes, but the sector needs better data on where it can develop new research and how it can use scant resources more effectively.

"The organisation is currently focused on case work delivery, almost to a damaging extent, in that extracting people to make the next stop forward is difficult. That's what we need to unclog."

ESR is the sole forensic science provider to the police and is the custodian and manager of the New Zealand criminal DNA databank.

Dr Buckleton said that one day forensic science would develop to the point where evidence could be found to identify anyone who had simply walked into a room.

However, New Zealand forensic scientists were deployed to solve present day rather than future crimes, he said.

"It's hard to justify our claim on these [research funds] because most government organisations would like to know that that money is going to be for some future export business.

It's really rather hard to show that investment in forensic science is going to lead to some future export business."

Dr Buckleton said he could not comment on funding levels for ESR, but he told a justice sector summit held in Wellington last week that preliminary research showed New Zealand police were possibly clearing close to 100 per cent of burglary cases where DNA evidence was involved.

However, New Zealand submitted only a quarter of DNA samples for testing compared with Britain, meaning police in this country solved many fewer burglary cases.

"I have to highlight this is a pilot study on a small fraction of the country taken over three months," Dr Buckleton said.

"We think there are key areas where small changes will have very large paybacks, and I believe there is a huge potential to be released by small amounts of targeted research."

While forensic scientists could possibly help solve many more crimes than they currently did their efforts would only ever supplement, not supplant, the work of the police, Dr Buckleton said.

"The bulk of all crime is still solved by good old-fashioned police work, and that's never going to change. We are a junior partner, but there is a heavy reliance on forensics.

"We are told of court cases which have failed because there is no forensic science, even though there is other good evidence. That's the evolution of the jury's mindset."

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