Forensic Science Culture Research Paper

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Heretofore the issue of quality in forensic science is approached through a quality management policy whose tenets are ruled by market forces. Despite some obvious advantages of standardization of methods allowing interlaboratory comparisons and implementation of databases, this approach suffers from a serious lack of consideration for forensic science as a science. A critical study of its principles and foundations, which constitutes its culture, enables to consider the matter of scientific quality through a new dimension. A better understanding of what pertains to forensic science ensures a better application and improves elementary actions within the investigative and intelligence processes as well as the judicial process. This leads to focus the attention on the core of the subject matter: the physical remnants of the criminal activity, namely, the traces that produce information in understanding this activity. Adapting practices to the detection and recognition of relevant traces relies on the apprehension of the processes underlying forensic science tenets (Locard, Kirk, relevancy issue) and a structured management of circumstantial information (directindirect information). This is influenced by forensic science education and training. However, the lack of homogeneity with regard to the scientific nature and culture of the discipline within forensic science practitioners and partners represents a real challenge. A sound and critical reconsideration of the forensic science practitioner’s roles (investigator, evaluator, intelligence provider) and objectives (prevention, strategies, evidence provider) within the criminal justice system is a means to strengthen the understanding and the application of forensic science. Indeed, the whole philosophy is aimed at ensuring a high degree of excellence, namely, a dedicated scientific quality.

Culture And Forensic Science

Culture is considered “in anthropology, [as] all knowledge that is acquired by human beings through their membership of a society. A culture incorporates all the shared knowledge, expectations and beliefs of a group.” Besides, sociologists defined it as “human processes of meaning-making generating artefacts, categories, norms, values, practices, rituals, symbols, worldviews, ideas, ideologies and discourses” (Spillman 2007). If the first definition puts forward the acquisition of a specific knowledge within a limited group of persons, the second view specifies the nature of this extensive knowledge, which emanates from these meaning-making processes that have a signification or a reason to be only within a given society or community. Culture is not innate and is acquired through various cognitive processes including (continuing) education and (in-house) training.

Forensic science is characterized by heterogeneous conceptions regarding its position within criminal justice systems (CJS). It has its own culture, despite the fact that it is often perceived through the eyes of various specialized professional bodies and is hardly ever emphasized (Margot 2011a). The implementation of (accredited) standards and procedures according to the logic of market forces represents one of the meaning-making processes shared within the combined community; this does not stand for the core of the forensic science culture. Forensic science is neither chemistry nor biology or physics, but is in fact based upon a historical or reverse engineering reasoning surrounding the physical residue of an event (to paraphrase Kind (1987)), in the form of a physical or material trace.

This cultural background leads to investigate the meaning-making processes that generate the key characteristics of this science, like its fundamental principles or values. An epistemology of forensic science investigates its principles and information framework and the way this knowledge can be transmitted in the form of education, training, and research for a recognized profession. In this perspective, the notion of quality is not instrument or market based but rather positioned within a complex justice system, quality being the added value afforded by the extracted knowledge and its interpretation within the justice context.

The Physical Trace As A Primitive Source Of Information

The Scientific Investigation Of Crime

The need to introduce scientific foundations within the investigation of crime was understood and suggested by Gross in the 1880s (Gross 1899), followed by various authors in the twentieth century to the fundamental contribution of Kind. These authors emphasized this peculiar connection between forensic science and the investigation process—where police and magistrates are partners, who rely on a need for valuable information. Thus, various types of information, whether direct or indirect from human sources or investigative means, are traditionally considered in solving cases. These above authors introduced a further dimension with the physical information. It comes from the scientific study of the only physical remnants of the criminal activities, the physical traces. The latter are the essential components of evidence and intelligence-led policing due to the reliability of the information extracted from it, and it can turn into general policing knowledge.

In every science developing a critical relationship to time (such as history, archaeology), physical trace—improperly called evidence at the stage of its discovery—is considered the single most reliable record, seen as the relevant witness of past events, whereas forensic science still has the secondary role as far as understanding crime is concerned. It is mostly considered through its capacity as an evidential piece in case solving to support traditional law enforcement investigation. The quality of even fragmentary physical records is such that it often becomes evidence in desperately empty investigation due to its pure strength. It should take at least equal importance within the criminal justice framework since it is usually the only measurable resource. This task is complicated because current forensic scientists and partner communities do not give a great place to forensic science information other than the analytical end product for courts. There is little interest shown to determine the scientific quality outside the laboratory, because it is generally seen as a subaltern part of law enforcement or judicial administration with little or no control over any other processes but the laboratory process.

Nevertheless, physical records transmitted to crime laboratories are collected from scenes of investigation without, often, due consideration to the problem of detection, recognition, and diagnosis/interpretation that should be based on scientific and circumstantial observations. It is the starting point of the whole forensic science process. The quality of the information given to partners is mostly, not to say exclusively, conditioned by the work achieved at the scene of investigation: a sound reason to focus on this stage of the process whenever quality matters are discussed.

The scene of investigation is a complicated environment fraught with various uncertainties that constitute a risk forensic science practitioners have to confront, but also offers huge opportunities. Detecting and finding relevant physical records that will provide useful data is faced with the uncertainty of not knowing the causes that have created traces. The value of the ensuing analytical process may be highly controlled and calibrated; it remains useless when it comes to control the uncertainty pertaining to (criminal) causal events. The way forensic science practitioners deal with risk conditions decisions taken at this stage, which affect the whole process that follows the detection and collection of traces. From the collected observational data, a complex and continuous reasoning process starts at the scene through an abductive reasoning to determine/diagnose probable or possible causes/propositions of the resulting events that may be tested through a deductive phase, which should help question or strengthen those hypothetical explanations (Bonfantini and Proni 1988). Eventually, the selected hypotheses constitute a network that will lead to identify relevant information to be used for evidence-led inquiry and/or intelligenceled policing (Ribaux et al. 2010a).

This management of uncertainties constitutes an interesting subject to study, approached by forensic science researchers through many ways: some focus on external/circumstantial bias effect advocating that information should be filtered to avoid contextual effect on decision making, others propose a Bayesian approach as an inference framework useful to consider objectively the whole spectrum of propositions within a given context (through the CAI (case assessment and interpretation) approach (Cook et al. 1999), or others carry out studies with sociological perception to determine the best conditions for improving process effectiveness (e.g., Julian et al. 2011). These approaches are not mutually exclusive but share a common perception that the most demanding step in the whole process occurs at the investigation scene and constitutes an essential quality issue, whereas the current debates are mostly focused on the end-product interpretation (after analyses) rather than the trace itself, the essential component of the forensic science discipline. The recognition of relevant information calls for a comprehensive vision and knowledge of what pertains to the apprehension of the trace, and a qualitative and quantitative appreciation of its information content (often incomplete) before any other issues.

The Physical Remnant Of The Criminal Activity

Kind (1987) defined the trace as information whose origin was a material residue of the investigated event. More specifically, it is defined as a mark, a signal, or an object that is a visible sign (not always visible by naked eye) and a vestige indicating a former presence (source level information) and/or an action (activity level) of something where the latter happened. The physical trace is the common, elementary, and indispensable piece of the forensic puzzle. It is common since, to paraphrase Locard (1920), every action creates a trace on any kind of support as a consequence of interactions between the actors of the event and the support. It is elementary, because the trace represents the first essential entity onto which the reasoning process will be based at the scene. And it is indispensable by virtue of its potential content of information that feeds the investigative and intelligence processes. The trace can be viewed from three different angles via:

– The genesis (or creation): complex factors interact and lead to create relevant physical traces. The creation of the trace takes place in a specific context that is conditioned by the activity of the criminal (the source) who interacts with the scene according to basic forensic science principles (Locard, Kirk) within the immediate environmental context (according to the situational approach theory) in a certain period of time. The presence (or absence) of the physical element within such a framework allows inferences to be made about the criminal and his activity. Without its creation, there is little object of reasoning except the possible meaning of an absence of a trace.

– The discovery: this step corresponds to the intervention after the event when forensic science practitioners come into play. This implies successive reflections, decisions, and actions that will condition the latter stages of the forensic science process. The problem of finding, detecting, and recognizing relevant traces is not trivial; it requires a comprehensive study to understand the types and mechanisms of transfer. In any way, without the discovery of the trace (or a realization of an abnormal absence), there is also no object of analysis or reasoning.

– The meaning-making process: the information carried by the trace may be a strong indicator of source and/or activity. According to variable utilitarian dimensions and basic logical steps (such as trace-to-source, source-to-trace, trace-to-trace relationships), forensic science practitioners evaluate the potential information content of the trace. Among the various parameters used to decide its value, the utilitarian perception by the forensic science practitioner grossly influences the detection capability and the will to detect. Practitioners notoriously prefer highly discriminating traces or those presenting a direct relationship with their source, e.g., fingermarks and DNA, compared to those that offer an indirect relationship or considered as less discriminating, e.g., shoemarks and microtraces. This well-known preference for individualizing traces is due to the capacity to indicate the source, whereas indirect “evidence” indicates a probable source extended to a group or a specific activity, whose relevancy depends on the case’s circumstances. This preference seems to be directly motivated by the strength it offers in the form of evidence in court, the main beneficiary of traditional forensic science. Practitioners may even decide to ignore some physical traces because of their expected complexity to be interpreted and/or used in court. In such situation, the selection at scenes is conditioned by an output concern “collected trace versus evidence easily interpreted in front of a Court” (Ribaux and Margot 2008). This view completely obliterates the rich information content (especially the activity dimension afforded by many traces) provided by physical data as shown in many studies. The multidimensional nature of relevant information for an extremely useful intelligence as well as evidence should be the norm and the cultural base of forensic science practice, because relevant physical traces provide information, whether in an intelligence process, in an investigative case solving perspective, or even to provide evidence for court.

The duality criminal’s activity–forensic science practitioner’s activity constitutes the elementary group conditioning the discovery and evaluation of relevant physical traces at scenes. If the former aspect is outside the control of the forensic scientist, the latter is entirely under her responsibility. Discussing scientific quality in this respect goes inevitably through a sound and introspective reflection of the role of forensic science and its activity as well as the perception of the profession.

The comprehensive vision and culture of the trace, as the essence of forensic science, emerges as a complex science whose principal role may not be the ultimate use by the courts, but the provider of essential data about crimes and their actors within the CJS that also helps public security strategies and measures. This leads to reflections about data collection and structured memories, and the necessity to implement sound and practical operating systems (e.g., relevant databases, data mining systems) to support and relay valuable and reliable information. This may strengthen the whole forensic science process only if it is part of a comprehensive model, such as the four-level model proposed by Ribaux et al. (2010a).

The Set Of Inferences According To The Standpoint Of “Clues” Paradigm

A culture of the physical trace exists in forensic science (Dulong 2004). It contributes to the representation of the discipline: a science (“a scientific approach and technical methods [based on] the study of physical traces” (Ribaux and Margot 2008)) fostering the ability to infer causes from observations. This model may be seen through the Ginzburg’s paradigma indiziario or clues’ paradigm (Ginzburg 1989), applied to the physical remnants of the criminal activity.

Ginzburg observed that society developed the view that knowledge about a whole could be obtained from physical details afforded by science and observations. He coined this paradigma indiziario as a model for a whole cultural movement in the nineteenth century. He traced the roots of this approach back into the cynegetics (i.e., the art to decipher traces and marks of animals decoded by hunters) back to Neolithic time when men were hunters and learned to use details through an elaborate, rapid, and complex thought mechanism to reconstruct events (Ginzburg 1989). The analogy between cynegetics and the forensic science process at the scene is astonishing: the hunter (the forensic science practitioner) trails the animal (the criminal) using traces and marks (physical traces) left in the wood (at the investigation scene) by the animal (the author) following his passing (criminal activity). The Ginzburg’s paradigm has a distant origin and is found in various disciplines (e.g., divination, law, medicine) where the aim is to tell stories based on observations of traces, signs, and clues. This paradigm marked many detective novels in the nineteenth century. Writers, such as Voltaire, Poe, Gaboriau, and Doyle, turned their heroes into fine observers of traces who applied reasoning methods based on drawn inferences that can be linked to Peirce’s pragmatic philosophy. More specifically, abductions are seen as a third fundamental form of logical inference, besides induction and deduction, that help devise logical explanatory hypotheses about observed results (traces/tracks), to go back to their potential probable causes.

Ginzburg draws a parallel between three specialists of importance: Morelli, doctor by training and art historian, who put in place an identification method relying on “negligible details” found on paintings in order to identify painters (method known today under the term “connoisseurship”); the second, Freud, who had an interpretative approach inspired from Morelli’s method and used neglected details indicating the hidden presence of reality; and the third, Doyle, doctor and writer of the adventures of the famous detective gifted with an accurate sense of details. All three used traces within their reasoning processes, precisely symptoms for Freud, clues for Sherlock Holmes, and pictorial signs for Morelli. Besides their common medical training, they also shared the application of a reasoning model specific to medical semiotics, a medical discipline based upon sign study of the invisible disease in order to propose a diagnosis. The criminal activity is like the illness, leaving traces at scenes that can be visible or latent (like signs of illness); the trace is the indirect expression of this action that the forensic science practitioner investigates and tends to highlight by inferences drawn from discovered and collected traces (becoming clues), as the doctor who makes a diagnosis of a specific disease by listing and correlating the relevant symptoms. In the presence of an epidemic, the doctor may identify relevant signs just like forensic intelligence may help find hidden traces from serial crimes.

The trace may therefore be analyzed according to different viewpoints—which may also correspond to different specialized occupation from investigators and intelligence analysts, laboratory analysts to policy makers. The trace is considered through its information content to determine:

– Source/composition: it may be a pattern, a chemical composition, or a biological trait that will be identified (with the use of databases) and compared to establish potential common origin. Indeed, the instrumental analysis of the source is where current quality assurance is focused.

– Form/activity: it may be a distribution of the trace with a specific position—following a sequence, within a certain period of time, with a specific physical distribution—that provides information about the transfer and the persistence or the activity that took place.

– Frame: it may only be inferred from source and form that set up the limits within which a reconstruction or understanding of the reasons for a current state is forming. This leads to hypothesize about the crime(s) and sets up a kind of window of opportunity.

– Aim/motive: considers the motive or a crime/ event, which may influence both form and frame and may be seen as a result, which gives undue advantage to a party through fraudulent means.

Frame and motive may feed intelligence and need logical reasoning to integrate some form of reconstruction and linkage in organized memories. Form relies also on logical and transparent reasoning in the association of traces to the events. Determination of source/composition needs specific technical reasoning in relation to qualitative and quantitative analyses. In summary, everything is based on one basic object, the remnant of criminal activity in the form of a physical object: the trace, although it leads to a complex phase of reasoning and professional decisions.

Source/composition requires discrimination and sensitive analytical tools; but grouping in relevant classifications in order to have elements of a same class within the class and elements from different classes separated may often be more important than traditional analytical performances. For example, is it better to be able to discriminate each drug seizure or each counterfeit from each other, or is it better to determine that a whole market is dominated by a single mode of production that may be from one source? In most cases, the answer to the second question has much more strategic and operational dimensions needed in an inquiry than in the first option. This is a measure of intra- and inter-variability, which has a greater impact on the potential meaning of a trace than knowing the limit of detection (LOD) and limit of quantification (LOQ) of techniques that focus on analytical tools detailed in standard procedures.

Milestone #1. The trace is the primitive source of information available to forensic science. Found at the scene, it is the core of the forensic science practice. It finds an interesting parallel with Ginzburg’s paradigm of “clues” viewed from an historian’s perspective. The trace contributes to intelligence-led and evidence-led dimensions fundamental to resolving or understanding crime phenomena. Comprehension of the logical process information goes through— from the trace to the evidence/intelligence— should be an essential step toward scientific quality assurance. The cultural background of this process lies in its specific rules.

Fundamental Principles Of Forensic Science

Locard’s And Kirk’s Exchange Principles

There exists in the field of criminalistics a serious deficiency in basic theory and principles, as contrasted with the large assortment of effective technical procedures. (Kirk 1963)

Even in the days of undisputed DNA evidence, this quote finds its echo in the identified lack of sound scientific methodology in the application of DNA according to the latest Campbell systematic reviews (2011) and serious flaws detected in the way of reporting even within accredited laboratories. Improving procedures through standardization processes or pushing forward, selectivity, limits of detection, and quantification are the main focus of scientists. As long as the focus will remain on technical features, the scientific quality will suffer from deficient outcomes.

The well-known principles of Locard and Kirk constitute two fundamental and specific cornerstones of forensic science. Most inferences can be based on these fundamental principles using other established sciences such as chemistry (composition, structure), physics (dynamics, laws of nature), and biology (heredity, metabolism). Although attributed to Locard and Kirk, these are axiomatic dimensions of nature that a contact will in some way be the cause of some transfer of a physical nature that constitutes a kind of signature of this contact and that the shared uniqueness of the trace and its source may ultimately lead to the individualization of the trace to a specific source. There is a vital need to investigate the validity of Locard’s and Kirk’s principles, considered as forensic science’s founding principles. Inseparable from its culture, they remain part of its foundations.

Interestingly, Crispino’s recent contributions brought valuable scientific arguments to the critical investigation of those organizing principles (Crispino et al. 2011). He stated that:

  1. Kirks’ principle of individuality (Kirk 1974) can be considered as being a scientific principle upon which forensic science practices lie everyday through the comparison of entities, since it fulfills Popper’s falsifiability criterion. Briefly, the whole point of comparison in forensic science is to ascertain the degree of concordances or discordances of measurable properties that might be found between two entities coming from allegedly the same source. Such process can be seen as an attempt to falsify the philosophical principle (Kirk’s) stating the uniqueness of every object, making this principle scientifically acceptable according to the Popperian logic.
  2. Locard’s principle of exchange (Locard 1920) is introduced as the basis of forensic science. It refers to the trace as representative of the identity of a source that is the object of transfer during the questioned activity and that will be submitted to the effect of time. The whole point within forensic science is to be able to trace back the source or the activity, but the process comes with all the uncertainties related to the fact that causes remain unknown. This is where reasoning through probabilistic inferences (abduction to deduction) comes into play. Methodological solutions, such as proposed by Cook et al. (1999), with the CAI model, help focus on interpretation difficulties and solutions for forensic science practitioners. Crispino demonstrates that Locard’s exchange principle is scientific because it is at the basis of forensic science reasoning. It is also corroborated pragmatically over centuries through the experiences of man as a hunter (cynegetic), where the reasoning process lies upon inferences drawn from observations of traces resulting from exchanges between animals and their environment. Investigating the scientific nature of Locard’s principle comes back to questioning the scientific nature of forensic science, an epistemological approach that may prove very effective to strengthen forensic science. The two principles are part of the forensic science paradigm, “both have the ability to be accepted as scientific laws. They add knowledge that can be measured and used in logic for the sake of the law (if not justice)” (Crispino et al. 2011). However, another fundamental issue for forensic practitioners is whether a detected trace is relevant, and this constitutes the essence of the forensic quest.

Relevancy And The Use Of A Proper Terminology

The forensic scientist is not a witness of the events under investigation and can never be certain to observe, detect, and see relevant traces for collection and analyses; however, this is the challenging goal. From crime scenes to laboratories, working with relevant physical traces is a leitmotiv and belongs to the thought processes fed by Locard’s and Kirk’s principles. Relevancy can be seen as a basic tenet describing the everyday life and doubts of forensic science practitioners. Currently it is mainly perceived according to criminal laws. The concept of relevancy is a key issue in a legal perspective and is understood as the “the adequacy between the fact that has to be proven and the brought evidence or between an allegation and the law rule to apply” (Le Grand Larousse Universel 1995). Though it is a requested condition for evidence to be admitted in court, the legal concept is not well defined (Twining 2006). Understood differently depending on the legal structure and proceedings, it should not stand for the forensic reference, since it does not cover the essential discovery step involved at the onset of an investigation that should be part of forensic science practice.

Although preliminary, the concept of relevancy is not clearly defined, but implicit within the reasoning process in forensic science. At the scene of investigation, there is a need to take decisions as to what to collect and then within the laboratory as to what sequences of methods have to be followed. When structuring databases and memories or preparing expert’s reports for intelligence or evidence, further decisions have to be made, and this is based on a sound appreciation of relevancy. The reasoning process can only be sound if pieces of the arguments are relevant.

Focusing on the relevancy concept in forensic science goes far beyond a simple question of definition. Precisely, Inman and Rudin (2000) did formalize the current conundrum that criminalists have to deal with: the most difficult challenge is the recognition of relevant physical evidence, although it may be questionable whether the capacity to recognize objects as clues would not have limits. Those limits fundamentally rely on the case-by-case approach: crime scenes are consecutive but not alike, being peculiar to every criminal activity, where resources are always limited (whether material, time, etc.). This forces forensic science practitioners to adapt to places and cases in order to find what is relevant.

A relevant trace carries information in relation to the event at its source and may be studied through basic logical relations (trace to source, source to trace, trace to trace, source to source, geographical, temporal relationships, etc.). The focus on the trace and the relevancy of meaning in relation to events is a semiotic quest that has to be studied.

The Recognition Of Relevant Traces

L’oeil ne voit dans les choses que ce qu’il y regarde. Et il ne regarde que ce qui est de´ja` dans l’esprit (i.e., “The eye only sees in things what it looks at. And it only looks at what it has in mind”), famous quote used by Bertillon that is attributed to the French journalist L. Peisse

Semiotics is the science that studies the sign—the very first act of communication—and its various forms; it questions and describes the mechanism of signification. This is a complex domain of research and study in both linguistics and medical diagnosis but has a direct importance in forensic science practice, since giving a meaning to observations is part of the process: whenever a relevant trace/object is recognized and perceived as such, a signification is attributed.

The semiotic standpoint of relevancy sets forth the importance of the processes of perception and recognition, which are conditioned by the practice in regard to which the subject considers the object in a given context (Sebeok 1986). The concept of relevancy is not an intrinsic quality; it only exists in a specific context (Fig. 1).

Forensic Science Culture Research Paper

The semiotic key terms used in the previous figure are defined as such:

– A class consists of a set of equivalent objects regarding a specific use, i.e., the class of interest is the relevant traces that consists of any kind of traces that might be relevant to the investigation and/or intelligence process.

– A concept is a set of features that is specific to a class; these features have to be recognized in the object to classify it. The forensic science practitioner may perceive explicit or implicit features (e.g., type of traces, quality, spatiotemporal localization, kind of information given once the trace object is used) and recognize the concept they belong to, namely, the concept of source and action that are linked to the criminal event in this situation.

– If a concept is recognized in an object, the latter becomes a part of the class, i.e., a trace object that realizes the criminal source/action concepts of the class relevant traces belongs to this class.

In summary, according to the semiotic view, relevancy is defined as a perception of trace objects conditioned by the context and by what the forensic science practitioner decides to recognize at investigative scenes and to use as features from (relevant) traces (i.e., potential for discrimination, for case linkage) found at the scene of investigation. These signification processes are ruled by cultural conventions; the whole reasoning is based upon the practice and the context. Relevancy is a conventional dimension specific to the practice the forensic practitioner evolves in; such a fact shows how important it is to understand what forensic science culture is and what it is made of, since it conditions forensic science practitioners’ work.

Trace, Clue, And Evidence

Interestingly, the discovered physical trace is often called physical “evidence,” whether at scene, laboratory, or court, although there is a huge difference in reality between these three settings. It is not because a trace has been discovered that it can be automatically classed as evidence: an indication of direction may or may not be relevant information. This information may be useful in directing search and in providing indications about frame, but it is not evidence (in a legal sense) until it is recognized in court to be an element on which the decision on the issue is made (judgment). Thus, evidence is solely the province of the court.

A trace exists in itself and does not have a meaning initially (although it can be measured), except that it is perceived as a support with an unexploited potential of information that might explain issues in the investigated cases. Once this potential is recognized, it is considered as a sign that potentially pertains to the class of relevant traces. The metric associated to the meaning gives some strength in view of probable causes. This measure, which may be expressed as the likelihood ratio in Bayes’ theorem (see Probability and Inference in Forensic Science), may be a strong indicator or clue of something insofar as it is interpreted in a specific context. The value of this clue in deciding on the issue by a judge is the evidential value (Fig. 2).

Forensic Science Culture Research Paper

As illustrated, the belief in the information content is built up between the discovered trace and the final outcome through measurements and a reasoning process. Therefore, the distinction of a trace from a clue and evidence are as follows:

– Trace and clue are two distinct states of a same object whose distinctive parameter is the recognition that the information it carries is relevant.

– Clue is therefore a trace with recognized and measured information content.

– Clues are gathered and constitute structured information about the case in issue. This helps the decision process (i.e., evidential process). Evidence consists of pieces of information that have been accepted to be relevant and useful in the decision process by a judge.

The study of relevancy is a key point between these entities and the understanding of it is an essentially cultural cornerstone of forensic science practice. Questioning the issue of relevancy in the forensic science process might be considered as a safeguard: it involves a meaning-making process where decisions and actions depend strongly upon the assessment of the relevancy of the features expected to be recognized as such. Significations come from the dynamic process of inferences set up by practitioners with regard to their personal stock-in-trade (knowledge, education-training, experience, called KEE model). Understanding this concept may help selection, training, and education of forensic scientists.

Milestone #2. Sound reflections regarding forensic science foundations enable it to be properly defined: “[.. .] a science on its own, defined as the science of identifying and associating traces for investigative and security purposes, based on its fundamental principles and the case assessment and interpretation that follows with its specific and relevant mode of inference” (Crispino et al. 2011). The study of principles is aimed to strengthen forensic science foundations and culture. Mastering the concepts and principles pertaining to forensic science is a way to ensure scientific quality.

Sound Education And Training For A Professional Judgment Of Quality

The Roles Of A Forensic Scientist

A real culture of the physical trace exists and is at the core of forensic science with two principles (Locard, Kirk) and the relevancy. The search, detection, recognition, and collection of relevant traces call for specific abilities for forensic scientists. Kirk (1974) described features of the forensic science practitioner’s work: “The investigator.. .must understand (a) what physical evidence is [sic]; (b) how to collect and preserve it; (c) how to obtain from it the information it carries; and (d) how to interpret the information so obtained.” This statement assumes some corollaries:

  1. To know and master the way a physical trace is created, which calls for a sound understanding of transfer, persistence, selectivity through teaching, and experimental research, using common sense and logic.
  2. To recognize the relevant trace with its potential of information (whether at the scene, the laboratory, in any kind of information process), which calls for a sound culture about the trace and the environment (recognizing situations as defined in criminological studies).
  3. To be able to evaluate the discovered trace (to read the signs), which calls for a comprehensive vision of the forensic science process and the part it may play within the CJS. It requires a sound scientific methodology of interpretation.

The whole approach is based on cognitive processes such as experience and culture of the trace acquired through education and training but is also based on the thoughtful use of available information related to the case and the current series identified as crime phenomena (e.g., through forensic intelligence). The work is therefore not limited to running methods and techniques; it goes far beyond. As simple as it seems, a doctor is not good because of the quality of her tests (even if this is important), but because of her cognitive abilities used through sound observations of signs or symptoms and the application of a logic that leads to an accurate diagnosis; this statement is also true to qualify a good forensic scientist.

Emphasis is mostly directed to technological progress and implementation in many forensic science laboratories rather than promoting forensic science culture and development through education and training. New technologies are important to master but remain tools, even useful to provide answers to pre-established questions according to the given problem (DeForest 1997). Education has to focus on means to foster relevant questioning when forensic scientists are faced with a (crime) problem.

Surprisingly, in most countries, people with a primary degree in forensic science are not the first choice for employers. Brown and Willis (2009) describe the typical route followed to become a forensic scientist within laboratories in the UK and Ireland. The preference is given to scientists with qualifications in another discipline rather than forensic science, who receive in-house training once hired. Despite a substantial number of university programs offering forensic science degrees popping up throughout the UK, but also elsewhere, such a statement is worrying about the quality of the forensic science education. It is reasonable to think that some of the forensic science programs do not educate students in a fit for purpose way to the reality of the field and in agreement with a forensic science culture, but responding to marketing interests instead (Lawless 2011), trying to attract students and associated financial rewards. There is a need for a sound and serious reappraisal of the way education of forensic science is conceived, and academic programs should be implemented considering a complete process of reasoning that starts from the perception of the trace at scenes to its interpretation as evidence/intelligence, a stage that represents a serious issue (currently the most controversial one).

Interestingly, the observed deficiencies in giving reliable and quality results of significance in forensic science laboratories participating in collaborative testing, even in the perceived “gold standard of DNA,” is proving deficient as far as interpretation of forensic data is concerned. If such a discrepancy within results emanates from a lack of solid (academic) interpretation bases, it also shows that hired scientists may master technical skills but are not educated and trained to handle forensic issues.

Addressing the education-training issue is not an easy matter and requires a definition of roles and functions. A forensic scientist may be an investigator (who infers from direct observations based on discovered physical traces assessed as being relevant), an evaluator (who helps partners to make inferences with regard to the case and provide answers) (Jackson et al. 2006), or an intelligence provider (who provides information that will reduce linkage blindness).

The forensic scientist may take the different roles or specialize depending on organizational decisions. All roles must be emphasized and integrated into the education’s vision in order to provide a foundation and a vision about the complexity of the forensic science process. It is, in all its actual dimensions, a true problem-solving process applied by the same or different people with a view to solve a problem (not to follow a process).

The Role Of Education Programs

First we need to note that the educational field that underpins forensic science is heterogeneous and confusing. (Willis 2009)

Forensic science communities have, in some way, started to undertake this reflection, though organizations and structures are just as heterogeneous and confusing, perhaps because of an historical evolution that contributed to the current fragmented vision. Three visions coexist nowadays and find their roots with pioneers:

  1. Gross—a lawyer—introduced the use of scientific methods as the basic methodology for an investigative magistrate. He called “Kriminalistik” the single basic methodology of criminal investigation. This became the French “criminalistique” used by Locard or the North American “criminalistics.” The influence of Gross is still felt throughout Central and Eastern Europe and has seen the development of forensic science laboratories within justice departments.
  2. Bertillon, an administrative assistant, introduced structured databases to identify recidivists within police structures. The methodological approach was developed from the 1880s, and its investigative methods became technical and identification-oriented at the base of technical police and identification bureaus.
  3. Finally, the third approach was more about expertise with a method developed to express experts’ opinions within specialized laboratories, which was emphasized by Locard (Crispino et al. 2011). Locard was a trained forensic medical doctor who directed his vision outside and complementary to medicine. Although he created what is now considered the first “police forensic science laboratory” (founded in 1910) in Lyon, he was adamant that this should be within the justice department, and his first laboratories were within the Lyon tribunal!

Such fragmented evolution is reflected in the current education and training programs. The logic according to which the clue development relies on trace detection is not currently leading the scientific methodology and technologies (Crispino et al. 2011). The current education and CJS emphasizes efforts on an incomplete role perceived through the eyes of government and justice policies. Focusing on the trace and the science itself to reconstruct the whole puzzle might be a sound thread to follow in developing education programs.

Education is meant for developing critical scientific reasoning relying on a sound scientific basis, while training represents the acquisition of the command for specific tasks. Barnett (2000) emphasized that education programs should achieve three main goals by developing:

– Forensic science professors, to teach the forensic science “philosophy” with the methodology and logical reasoning process standing behind the words “forensic science.” The knowledge specific to the discipline has to be fostered and transmitted through a more holistic vision.

– Practitioners dedicated to research, to improve and strengthen the science by investigating foundations of the science as well as leading research with a more pragmatic concern for the field.

– The core of the forensic science profession with practitioners who apply the developed knowledge and are expected to undergo further inhouse training and continuing education.

To succeed in such an enterprise, relations between academia and practice have to be strengthened in order to establish a valuable and effective flow of knowledge (Willis 2009) and develop sound professional judgment to assess whether a particular piece of data is relevant.

Milestone #3. Education and training frameworks have to foster a holistic vision of forensic science as a science based on the trace, convey the culture of the relevant questioning, and emphasize the multiple roles of the forensic scientist within the CJS.

Only education, training, and research may guarantee quality and relevancy consistently within a forensic science profession.

An End To Think About

As a meaning-making process that defines the culture of forensic science is the one transforming traces into information and then into (forensic science) knowledge (see Fig. 3).

Forensic Science Culture Research Paper

Think forensic consists of a thought methodology that lies on games of drawn inferences, which are based on critical observations of details (discovered traces), a sound scientific knowledge, a forensic science culture, and a capacity for adjustments. Details are made to “speak” and are used as clues for intelligence and/or evidence purposes. The latter are not mutually exclusive since the follow-up of information, part of the intelligence process, can provide support for the evidence-led inquiry or new inputs.

The forensic practitioner, who undertakes various roles, contributes to two processes, which diverge as to the effect of their outputs albeit they are part of the same system: the evidence-led inquiry provides reactive measures, like a response to a current case, while the intelligence-led policing allows proactive ones in terms of implementation of prevention, security, and operational matters.

Finally, ensuring scientific quality depends on the ability to recognize the impact and the limits of the forensic science knowledge and forensic scientists duty in the overall system, illustrated in this figure; by showing a comprehensive picture of their influence on the whole system, it enables to ask relevant questions that will improve the quality of the process. Such a conception of the forensic science culture fostered through an appropriate education and training will provide sound basis for forensic scientists, whose professional judgment would not be questioned as long as it relies on this basis, allowing the development of a sound trust in forensic scientists “expertise.”


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