“It’s satisfying when forensic evidence is used to deliver justice,” EUPOL COPPS’ Forensics Adviser talks about her work

Dr Sabina Resic Lindehammer, from Sweden, has one piece of advice for any applicants hoping to work as forensic experts. “Don’t say you were inspired by watching Miami CSI!”. According to her, real forensic work is much less glamorous and high heels are certainly not standard laboratory wear.

“The qualities that are needed in a forensic expert are curiosity and thoroughness,” she says. “It’s not like medical science, where you have an idea with exact measures of what you are looking for and will likely be working on a particular project for a number of years. In forensics, you might not immediately know where to start and your primary idea can change direction at any time. You get focused on persistently searching for that piece of evidence that the perpetrator left behind. Every case is different from the previous one. But there is more immediate gratification in forensics than in medicine. When you collaborate with first responders, investigators and prosecutors to see a perpetrator put behind bars, it’s a good feeling. Or when the evidence you have collected acquits someone innocent. It’s satisfying seeing justice delivered”.

Sabina joined EUPOL COPPS in January 2020 to work as the Mission’s Forensic Adviser, working closely with her Palestinian counterparts in the Palestinian Civil Police (PCP) to build forensic capacity. Back in Sweden, she is the Team Lead of the southern Laboratory Unit at the National Forensic Centre of the Swedish National Police Authority. Despite the emergency measures in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, she maintains regular contact with her Palestinian colleagues in order to build on the trainings she has already delivered. “I really enjoy my interaction with the forensics team in the PCP. They are eager to learn”.

When asked what the biggest challenge she believes Palestine faces in terms of forensic capacity, Dr Resic Lindehammer answers, “crime scene contamination and chain of custody” with no hesitation. “To secure a DNA trace that can lead to a criminal conviction, you need to prevent it from being contaminated by other sources – for example, yourself or first responders on the crime scene. Unwanted transfer of material, primary or secondary, between multiple sources has the potential to change the outcome of a criminal investigation. Moreover, improper collection of biological evidence such as blood can end up in mistakes, which can lead to someone guilty being acquitted. A famous example where improper collection of evidence likely led to an acquittal is the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, and the trial of her husband OJ Simpson.”

“Together with the biological section of the PCP, we are currently working through chapters of John M. Butler’s Book, ‘Fundamentals of Forensic DNA Typing’ in English. Some of the language used in the book is challenging, and you can see that it isn’t always easy for them. But they are pulling through and it’s really uplifting to see. I asked them recently to give me a presentation of a published article in up to date forensic science, and you could see how proud they were to share the knowledge they acquired. I’m proud of them that they are proud and so highly motivated”.

To build more advanced forensic science capacity, EUPOL COPPS’ Forensics Adviser is advising greater specialisation. “In order to hand over a report on genetic analysis to the court, you have to collect it, extract it, run it through a thermal cycler where you make a an extremely small amount of DNA usuable, separate it and read it. In Sweden, each of these stages is handled by different experts, who have specialised in a particular task. In the PCP on the other hand, the same team is expected to handle all the possible forensic tasks. In an ideal world, it would be possible to train up different experts to handle the different tasks in the chain.

Reflecting on her own professional development, she recalls how the policing culture has evolved in Sweden. “Forensic science is not a new area but using DNA as evidence in court saw the first light of day in 1988 when Colin Pitchfork was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of two teenage girls.

So, it wasn’t that long ago that the police realised the need to recruit more specialists with varied backgrounds, for example people with science degrees. I hope while I’m in Palestine to be able to contribute to a change here too and see the colleagues in the PCP’s biological section becoming Forensic Biologists”.