Andrew McDonnell, Regional Forensic CCTV Manager, West Yorkshire Police

Andy, you're Regional CCTV Manager for a forensic laboratory in Yorkshire & the Humber. Tell us about your role: what does a typical day in your life look like?

I usually start each day by checking emails on my laptop at home while having breakfast and trying to find out what the day’s operational workload is likely to consist of.

Once in the office, as cliché as it sounds, it’s true to say that every day is different. A “typical day” can vary from quality assurance meetings (implementation of ISO17025 and ISO17020 in line with the Forensic Science Regulator’s requirements is a significant project for everybody in our sector at the moment), to balancing our resources against the demands of four police forces investigating a wide range of crime types.My team provide a comprehensive service of recovering, processing, analysing and enhancing CCTV imagery and data for criminal investigations with our focus being on major incidents and serious crime. We also provide a second-line technical support role to CCTV investigators in each of the 23 local policing districts we serve across the region, who deal with lower-level crime types such as retail theft, car crimes and petrol station make-offs.

The office is open from 8am to 10pm, 365 days per year, and with 18 staff across two sites it can be challenging to keep across everything if you limit yourself to a mere 8-hour day.

What was it that first sparked your interest in digital forensics, and how did you end up working with CCTV?

I actually came into digital forensics via an unusual route.

When I was younger I always wanted to be a forensic scientist, but I was never academic enough at school/college. So after a short spell stacking supermarket shelves and collecting eggs on a chicken farm I ventured into the military where I learned about telecommunications.

From there I moved into broadcast television, developing my technical skills in video engineering. This gave me a solid background in the electronic principles of video waveforms and the methods of converting analogue to digital video. I spent 12 years designing and building TV studios, edit suites and transmission centres for broadcasters in the UK, Europe and Indonesia.

Following redundancy I joined West Yorkshire Police’s Imaging Unit and brought my video knowledge into forensic imaging. And 18 years later I haven’t looked back.

Your lab provides technical support to police officers conducting investigations across four police forces – can you give us an example of the kind of case you might work on?

We work on a wide range of cases but our primary focus is on major incidents such as murder, rape, fatal road traffic collisions, etc. We also undertake work on crime types such as Section 18 woundings, armed robberies, drugs conspiracies and child abuse.

If a crime is likely to be dealt with as an indictment-only offence and sentenced through Crown Court, or an either-way offence with a typical sentencing starting point of Crown Court, we will provide the full service.

Lower level either-way offences, and summary-only offences typically sentenced in Magistrates Court, are dealt with by the district CCTV teams and we provide technical support to them which includes offering appointments for them to bring CCTV into our department when they require assistance with complex technical issues.

The work can often be unpleasant, but the team are very resilient and the support provided by West Yorkshire Police in terms of pastoral care, occupational health and mental health first aid is excellent.

Is there a typical process that each piece of CCTV evidence goes through when you receive it, or does it differ widely?

The technical processes we apply to CCTV will vary depending on the nature of the file type, the quality of the image, and what the customer requirement is for that particular case.

But there are some basic principles that are applied to every job.

Firstly we identify what the customer requires, which could be a video clip of particular interest which needs to be converted so that it plays on a force computer or laptop. Or they may want to improve an image so they can extract additional intelligence or evidence, such as characters from a vehicle number plate or a tattoo on a suspect’s hand, for example.

Once we know the requirement, we can evaluate the media file to ascertain what the image quality is, and how the file is constructed. That will give us an indication of how we can process the media while maintaining the highest possible image quality and without introducing visual artefacts which may create a false interpretation of the image.

This will provide us with a strategy for how to approach the processing of that particular media file.

How has CCTV analysis changed over the last few years?

There have been significant changes in recent years. For a long time CCTV in policing has needed professionalising and modernising and it required significant investment and training.

A lot of work has been done nationally. The Home Office Scientific Development Branch (HOSDB) made big leaps forward by researching and introducing best practices and undertaking a lot of research into video analytics and other significant areas of business.

They produced the Home Office Digital Imaging Procedure, which became the national standard for CCTV recovery in the UK and have been heavily involved in research around body-worn video and video analytics using artificial intelligence.

HOSDB recently became the Centre for Applied Science & Technology (CAST) and is now being absorbed into the Defence Science & Technology Laboratories.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council CCTV User Group and the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences are continuing to professionalise the service, alongside the College of Policing, by introducing a national CCTV competency framework which sets out the skills and training required by staff working in this field at different levels.

What are some of the main challenges associated with CCTV investigation, and how does your lab address these?

One of the significant challenges right now is adoption of the ISO17025 and ISO17020 quality standards. This is a big undertaking and is helping to move the sector to a much more professional footing. But achieving this is proving to be a huge challenge for everybody. Our laboratory achieved accreditation for all our procedures, and we are now assisting other forces with advice and guidance so they can learn from our lessons.

But from an operational perspective, with 96% of cases nationally involving CCTV evidence and the technology advancing at a fast pace, the demand for recovery and processing of CCTV often outstrips available resources. Our regional model of providing a central professional service for major incidents and serious crime, supplemented with localised CCTV staff at each policing district who use standard hardware, software and methods, and technical support provided by the central team, works well. It allows us to balance demand, resources, quality requirements and costs.

But for CCTV to continue as a significant investigative tool it is crucial that new generations are trained and recruited into the technical support roles. It is a fact that CCTV, when used effectively in an investigation, leads to more identifications than DNA and fingerprints combined and at a fraction of the cost. But CCTV needs to be recognised as a valuable tool, and that value will only continue to become more widely recognised if the CCTV processes are handled professionally by qualified and competent technicians.

Another challenge comes from the ever-increasing file sizes. The amount of data having to be handled, processed and distributed when recovering large amounts of CCTV is expanding with the proliferation of high-definition and even super-high definition (or 4K) cameras that are coming onto the marketplace. And with over 3,500 proprietary file systems in the UK marketplace there will always be a high demand for technical experts.

Finally, when you're not working, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Spending time with family is the most important. And the need to relax which I tend to do with a glass of real ale or a single malt whisky and a book. I’d like to claim that I do lots of exercise but that’s no longer the case other than occasional weekend hikes in the Peak District with friends. The usual dinner parties, barbecues, meals out with friends and trips to the cinema and theatre are always great fun too!

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