How new forensic techniques help preserve witness memory
When emergency services arrive at a crime scene, one of the main jobs for the officers present is to preserve the forensic evidence. Without it, vital clues about the cause of the incident and the people responsible could be lost.
But it's not the only important scene to consider – the fragile memory of the witness must be preserved too.The fragility of human memory has long raised concerns in the courtroom. Memory can change with time and can be disrupted by our experiences before and after an event – but witness accounts are still relied upon in court. So, how can you protect memory when it matters?
Leading a team of researchers, our Professor of Forensic Psychology, Professor Becky Milne, is working with UK emergency services – including the Fire, Police, and London Ambulance Services – to better recover and preserve witness memory.
By understanding the complexities of memory, Professor Milne's work is revolutionising how the UK emergency services capture and extract evidence from the human mind. It's helping witnesses provide more detailed and accurate accounts too.
Professor Milne said: "When you look at the amount of evidence that goes to court, it’s generally only a small percentage that is forensic evidence. Most evidence comes from other sources, such as humans.
"But memory is like a virginal field of snow – once pure and white, it will go dark and contaminated if you walk all over it. I would love to put police tape around everyone's head because the brain is a scene in its own right. That scene also needs protection."
Memory is like a virginal field of snow - once pure and white, it will go dark and contaminated if you walk all over it
In early 2016, London Fire Brigade hosted Europe’s largest disaster training exercise. This major incident recreation involved dozens of emergency units across many services.
Through Body Worn Video footage, Professor Becky Milne and colleagues could see how firefighters and officers communicated with the public at the frontline.
Their research was one of the first to highlight how the way first-responders communicate can impact upon witness memory. It also showed how low-quality information travels down the chain, and how it impacts decision-making along the way.
Together with colleagues from Goldsmiths, our researchers used this Body Worn Video footage to develop a Structured Interview Protocol for the police service.
Professor Milne said: "The investigator's decisions are only as good as the information they have. And the information is only as good as the communication that brought it. We are one of the first to look into this communication chain for any critical incidents. That’s valuable information to start gathering.
"Body Worn Video cameras attached to police officers allow us to assess how well they communicate with people. The officers are in resolution mode doing some brilliant work, but they're not in investigative mode.
"So we need to make sure they don't 'contaminate the snow' and discolour the cerebral evidence buried within the minds of those they question."
Academia and emergency services must work together, so we can uncover the truth, get justice and save lives
Working with the London and Hampshire Fire Service and the London Ambulance Service, Professor Milne and colleagues are now also developing communication protocols for crucial moments in the emergency response process.
Now when someone calls in a fire, call operators will be able to start retrieving vital information which might help response units at the scene.
Professor Milne said: "We're conducting research to see if there is any information the Fire and Ambulance Service need to know. If so, we can bring that back into the control room."
By seeing how emergency services gather information, Professor Milne and her colleagues also aim to develop bespoke protocols for each service.
She said: "The UK is one of the best at dealing with these situations, because our emergency services embrace partnership. We all work together to try and make things better for everyone. Academia and emergency services must work together, so we can uncover the truth, get justice and save lives."