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Monday, 28 July 2014

CSI Workington: no glamour here

“Forget the glamour. The scene suits end up making you feel like boil-in-the-bag rice because they are so hot.

“There are no strappy tops and high heels here!” says crime scene investigator Bridgett Sowerby.

Thousands of miles away from the bright lights of Las Vegas, home of the original CSI television series and the formidable Gil Grissom, the reality of crime scene investigation is a lot less shiny hair and flashy sunglasses and a lot more about hard work.

Bridgett Sowerby has been a crime scene investigator for 11 years, covering all of West Cumbria.

She says: “I sometimes watch crime shows on TV, and it always amazes me how people march right into a scene in their normal clothes, while we are stuck in these suits all the time.

“The best thing about the job is the variety; the techniques are the same but it is always in different places. It is never boring, that’s for sure.

“The worst thing about the job is the smells. You very quickly learn to breathe through your mouth and put menthol in your mask.”

The medium-sized office that Bridgett shares with her CSI colleagues in Workington police station looks no different from any other office, other than the mound of cases full of equipment piled up on one table.

It is a far cry from the sleek and modern offices often seen on TV with their glass walls and hi-tech kit.

For the Workington CSIs, most of their evidence is sent to the force’s laboratories at Penrith or out to private labs.

Bridgett says the role at first meant a “steep learning curve”.

She adds: “You are wide-eyed for a few months.

“People have a bit better knowledge of what we do now because of the TV, but you try to manage their expectations because on TV everything is solved within an hour and they have lots of fabulous gadgets.”

John Bowman, head of CSI, said: “Developments in technology are slow to filter down and CSI hasn’t changed that much in 20 years.

“It is the technology in the labs that has moved on, and DNA technology has moved on in leaps and bounds.”

However, instant results do not magically pop up on the computer screens; there are always people on hand to check everything along the way.

Fingerprints can be taken digitally and searched on a database but this will only produce a list of names, not suggest an immediate suspect.

The fingerprints are then checked with the human eye by three separate people to ensure that there is a shared confidence that they have identified the right person.

Bridgett allows us to accompany her to a crime scene, where a van has been abandoned after causing some damage to street furniture.

Investigating officers are busy trying to determine who was driving the van.

Bridgett takes us through various techniques that she uses to gather evidence at a scene. They include photographs of the van, taking swabs for DNA on its steering wheel and fingerprints from both doors, the door handles and windows.

All these techniques would be familiar to fans of crime shows but the process takes much longer in reality, and getting a good quality print is much less likely.

Everything is meticulously documented and sealed in evidence bags that preserve the integrity of the evidence.

Bridgett adds: “I never know what is going to unfold so it keeps you on your toes. I can be in a garage processing a vehicle, up a fell or in a horrible house all day.

“The best crime scenes are the ones that are full of evidence, so that somewhere there is the potential to get the evidence needed for a conviction.”

Cumbria Constabulary’s scientific support unit examines over 9,000 crime scenes every year, taking around 100,000 photographs and 4,000 fingerprints.

The crime scene investigators also examine fibres, debris, glass fragments, tyre marks, footwear, firearms, mobile phones and computers to help catch criminals.

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