Murder in mind: Yorkshire forensics site's unique approach to catching killers

Despite a new national scandal, a unique partnership between Yorkshire's police forces and top scientists is helping to crack the county's most serious crimes. Chris Burn reports.

Lab staff at the Regional Scientific Support Unit, Calder Park, Wakefield.

The use of private firms to carry out forensics work for criminal investigations is itself under the microscope after hundreds of inquiries were thrown into doubt last month.

But officials in Yorkshire say they have cracked the case when it comes to splitting work between the public and private sector, with a unique £21m facility in Wakefield helping to solve dozens of murders and other serious crimes in the county over the last five years.

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The facility was originally created by West Yorkshire Police and now acts as a base for the forensics investigations of all the Yorkshire forces, as well as being the home of LGC, the private firm which does the vast majority of the specialist scientific work needed.

Neil Denison at the Regional Scientific Support Unit, Calder Park, Wakefield.

County police forces have spent more than £27m in the past four years on paying specialists to conduct vital forensics work – with the vast majority of this going to LGC, who are signed into a long-term contract with the four Yorkshire forces plus those in Cleveland, Durham and Northumbria.

The issue of private firms doing specialist forensic work has been highlighted as it was revealed almost 500 criminal investigations across the country are being reviewed after test results at a Manchester lab run by private firm Randox were allegedly tampered with. More than 200 cases in Yorkshire are under review.

Two men have been arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice, with Randox stating issues with toxicology results were down to the “perverse actions of individuals” and that samples themselves had not been interfered with.

It comes after concerns were raised in January by the Forensic Science Regulator that outsourcing was presenting a significant risk to services and forces are struggling to cope with increased demand.

Neil Denison at the Regional Scientific Support Unit, Calder Park, Wakefield.

But officials in Yorkshire say their unique way of working alongside LGC is both delivering an improved forensics service while also saving taxpayers money.

Opened in May 2012, all of Yorkshire’s police forces make use of the Sir Alec Jeffreys Building in Wakefield used by the Regional Scientific Support Services team. The site, named after the founding father of DNA profiling, boasts state-of-the-art technology to ensure DNA samples and fingerprints from crime scenes can help bring offenders to justice.

The centre was originally planned just for the use of West Yorkshire Police but its opening happened to come just months after the closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS) in Wetherby. That led to a rethink of how the facility could be used and it soon became home to a regional forensics service for all the county’s forces, as well as a base for the private provider LGC which took over the work of the FSS locally.

The Government-owned FSS site in Wetherby was one of seven national locations to be shut, with the loss of around 1,600 jobs. The Government said the FSS was losing around £2m per month.

Minister James Brokenshire said at the time that private sector providers competing to provide services at the lowest cost would “help to drive down prices and improve turnaround times, meaning serious crimes can be cleared up more quickly and efficiently”.

But Forensic Science Regulator Dr Gillian Tully warned this January that outsourced forensic services are frequently changing hands between different providers, with over 60 per cent of the market either out to tender or in the process of moving to a new company.

“Such a level of instability presents a significant risk to the quality of forensic science work. Experience has shown that when large volumes of work change hands, there is an increase in quality failures and a loss of skills,” she said.

Mark Milsom, assistant chief constable of West Yorkshire Police, says while other police forces across the country made use of a national procurement framework to outsource forensics work when the Forensic Science Service closed, those in Yorkshire were able to make use of a different model thanks to the Wakefield site.

Mr Milsom says he understands Dr Tully’s concerns about outsourcing but feels police forces should not be blamed. “It was an entirely Government-led intervention. When we did things our way, it wasn’t popular. It was perceived as us being a bit awkward. But within 12 months, it was recognised as being best practice.

“We have a relationship with a single provider who provides the majority of our services.”

Around £6m per year is spent by the Yorkshire forces on the LGC deal, compared with internal spending of about £25m on forensics work. Internal police staff concentrate on providing services such as fingerprint and footwear analysis, while LGC scientists provide specialist support in areas such as blood patterning and DNA analysis.

For West Yorkshire Police alone, spending on external forensics support has reduced from around £10m in 2010 down to about £3m a year now.

Neil Denison, acting director of the Regional Scientific Support Services for Yorkshire and the Humber, says his team employ what amounts to a ‘triage’ system when police officers ask for forensic tests to be carried out, with specially-trained civilian staff ensuring procedures are necessary.

“The staff ask ‘What is the potential value of what they are asking for, what is the cost of doing it, what is the likelihood of getting a result?’ It is about how we spend the public’s money in an effective way.”

He says closer working between the regional forces will see the opening of a new control room for the forensics team at Wakefield next month, which will allow crime scene investigators to be sent out to incidents across Yorkshire in the most efficient way rather than being limited by force area boundaries.

Mr Milsom says while the local police forces do their best to conduct as much forensics work themselves as possible, specialist outside support is often necessary.

“You want to have independent scientific evidence. Doing things in-house isn’t always the best option. When you are wanting the evidence to be assessed from a scientific perspective, you are always going to give that to a third party.

“Really what forensic science is about is utilising expertise in different fields. We have both saved money and improved the quality of what we have done, which is what we are supposed to be doing in these times of austerity.”

Other forces are now looking at how the Yorkshire model operates – but it may prove difficult to replicate given the costs of building such a facility in times of cutbacks. Mr Milsom says: “We were served well by the opportunity the building presented. For other regions to move towards a structure like this is going to be really difficult. It is going to need a will and a way.”

Trainer analysis helped catch racist killer

Footwear analysis carried out at the Wakefield facility played a key role in helping to solve the racist murder of a Yorkshire pensioner.

Mushin Ahmed, aged 81, was punched, kicked and stamped on as he walked to early morning prayers at his local mosque in Rotherham in August 2015, dying in hospital from his injuries.

Footwear analysis done in Wakefield showed injuries on Mr Ahmed’s face were consistent with the same trainers worn that night by suspect Dale Jones.

Jones was convicted of his murder and was jailed for life with a minimum term of 32 years. A second man, Damien Hunt, was jailed for 14 years for manslaughter, after his DNA was found on Mr Ahmed’s dentures, indicating he had punched him.