Our training lead, Sarah Thirkell, has a wealth of experience in being both a Crime Scene Investigator and Crime Scene Manager.
With over 25 years of experience in Law Enforcement, our training lead, Sarah Thirkell, has built up a wealth of experience in crime scene investigation. We sat down with her to discuss her career to date, including the most interesting cases she’s worked on and advice she has for new crime scene investigators.
When did you first know you wanted a career in forensics?
I did a biology degree at Reading University and I was interested in combining science with policing, which got me into understanding forensic work. I wanted to join the police, but I also wanted to use my scientific background. It was from that which led me to looking into entering the field of forensics.
How did you get into Crime Scene Investigation?
I joined West Mercia Police in 1991, around six months after I graduated from university and I worked there for about two years. I decided that to help me gain more experience, I needed to more to a bigger police force with more city environment, so I then moved to Thames Valley Police back in 1993. I remained at Thames Valley Police for 23 years, leaving in 2016.
Back when I started, scenes of crime was a really male-dominated environment and I was in fact the first female ever at Oxford Police Station. Across Thames Valley there were only around four women in the scenes of crime department. It’s interesting to see how it has changed over time as these departments are now more female dominated.
Could you tell us a bit more about your experience in CSI, including some of your most memorable scenes you have worked on?
I’ve worked on a lot of high profile murder scenes and crime scenes, but one of the highest profile jobs I’ve worked on was the collapse of Didcot Power Station. The building collapsed and crushed four workers there, it was a big disaster victim identification (DVI) case and it took six months to recover the bodies from under the rubble.
The building that collapsed was heavier than the Empire State Building and half of the building was still upright and was unstable because it had been prepared for demolition. This meant we had to stay 50 metres away from it and we were using big bits of machinery to take these large sections of metal away. We not only had to find the bodies of the missing workers, but also had to ascertain whether it was a criminal investigation or not, so every single item which was taken off had to be exhibited and examined to see why the building had collapsed.
Was it human error on the calculations or had the structural engineers cut the steelworks incorrectly prior to demolition? It was a big joint investigation between the health and safety executive and the police.
I’ve also done double murder investigations and child deaths too. Some of the most memorable jobs are those that affect you mentally. They always think you’re hard as nails and that jobs don’t affect you, but I’ve had several jobs that I remember not for the best reasons. We’re only human.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
I think the most rewarding part of my job is when you get a really good result at court, when you get satisfaction for the family. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a big job like a murder investigation or a little old lady who has been burgled and has had £20 stolen. The satisfaction of finding an offender’s fingerprint or climbing in mark at the window, getting a forensic result from a piece of work you’ve done is job satisfaction.
One of the most rewarding jobs I’ve worked on was a big animal rights operation, an animal experimentation house at Oxford University was planning to be built. I was working at Oxford at the time, so I was put in charge of the forensics and I worked on the major crime investigation for three years.
It was a big national story. The animal rights protestors weren’t just attacking the site of the build at Oxford University, they were attacking different university buildings with petrol bombs and arson attacks, but also, they attacked builders who were building the house. They also targeted builders’ families, by finding out who the builders were and where they lived and sent letters to their neighbours with lies about them.
They would use red paint to write ‘murderer’ on builders’ cars and houses, pour acid on the cars and they’d also send letters to the school where their children went. It was a massive investigation and I was coordinating about 40 different jobs across the country. It was a really interesting job to be involved with and to secure justice.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your career?
I would say the financial side is the most challenging aspect for me. When I was working for the police as a Crime Scene Coordinator, I was in charge of big murder investigations and I had a set budget I could spend on forensic investigations, with a certain amount of money getting a forensic scientist in or submitting items to the lab.
In some cases, we have to limit what we submitt and it’s all down to how much it costs and it was really frustrating. The police do a fantastic job, but they don’t have the financial backing to do the best they can do.
As a Crime Scene Coordinator, I’d have a list of four or five hundred exhibits which have been seized by CSIs from any scenes involved and I would have to sit down and decide which exhibits need to go off for analysis and justify why. We’d have to submit the minimum possible to secure a court case against the accused and some of the stuff we could have done, we didn’t due to cost.
What is the most rewarding aspect of training new and experienced CSIs?
I really enjoy seeing them grow in confidence throughout the training. For some of the CSIs on these courses, it’s their first day on the job, for others, they’ve been in the role for a few months, but when they start the course, they’re usually like rabbits in the headlights, so it’s nice to see them grow in confidence in their own abilities, especially on the photographic side.
It’s also nice to see them tie together all the skills they’ve learned in the six-week course. By the end of the course, they will have learned how to photograph a scene, fingerprint a scene, recover items and package them correctly, appear in court and write statements and scene notes. It’s a big achievement and it’s great to see them go out and have the self-belief that they can examine a scene.
How has crime scene investigation developed throughout your career?
When I first started, we only did blood grouping, there was no DNA database, that was established in 1995. We would only examine six DNA regions, whereas now we can examine up to 17 regions.
Technology has improved a lot in CSI. Some of the basic technology has changed slightly, but a lot of the technology around DNA has changed massively. There were no digital cameras when I started, meaning we didn’t necessarily know how the photos would come out. Night time photography was a lot tougher, as you needed the right lighting, but you’d have to wait for a few days for the photos to develop before you knew if they were good enough to be used as part of the investigation.
The introduction of the Forensic Science Regulator has meant that every police force needs to be more standardised in the processes of examining a crime scene, making CSIs more accountable for their actions on scene.
How do you see crime scene investigation developing in the future?
With regard to where I think CSI is going in the future, I think DNA techniques will become more sensitive, as a result, the risk of contamination will increase. Digital evidence is becoming ever more important in investigations, CCTV never used to be used, mobile phones track so much of your life now and we weren’t previously able to do a massive amount with mobile phone downloads, but now, it’s more accessible and will continue to be so.
What advice would you offer to new CSIs?
It’s one of the best jobs in the world if you’re a people person and you want a practical job where no day, no hour is the same. But working in the police force, you have to devote your life. Your personal life will change, you can’t be a CSI one day and then the next day go out, get drunk, get lairy and arrested, you have to be more accountable for your actions.
Embrace the variety of work that you will potentially get to see and the sights the normal members of the public will never see. I’ve seen more death and destruction than any of my university friends and when I meet up with them, they’re always eager to find out what I’ve been working on as they see it as an interesting job.
There are long hours in the job, it’s hard work, you can be on a murder scene for two or three days, or even two or three weeks. But it is one of the best jobs in the world.
Would you like more information about our Crime Scene Management and Crime Scene Investigation L1 and L2 courses? Contact our Forensic Training Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org to book your place.