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A man wearing protective clothing and a respirator sits in a pristine lab. His reflection appears in a glass wall in front on him.

Forensic experts manage risk to reap rewards

RCMP forensic identification experts take safety precautions before examining hazardous evidence like explosives or drugs. Credit: RCMP


RCMP forensics expert Aaron Dove studied for years so he could investigate crime scenes and collect evidence to help police officers and Crown attorneys find the truth.

"It's an experience you can't get anywhere else," says Dove, a civilian forensic identification member who earned a master's degree in forensic science from England's Staffordshire University in 2007. "Every case is a puzzle to be unravelled using the evidence you find."

S/Sgt. Michael Leben, head of training for the RCMP's Integrated Forensic Identification Services, says there are about 280 forensic identification employees across the country.

Some, such as Dove, are civilian members who join RCMP forensics teams upon their hire. Others are police officers who are later trained in forensics.

"It was always my dream," says retired S/Sgt. Tim Walker, who began working in forensics in 2004 and retired as a divisional manager and senior forensics specialist in New Brunswick in 2019.

Walker has worked on everything from the 1998 Swiss Air crash, to murder scenes and countless other crimes. He says the job is physical and requires focus.

"You're going to be on hands and knees a lot looking for evidence," he says half jokingly. "But you'll need to be meticulous, self-motivated and have good attention to detail."

Realities and risks

After about three or four years of general duty policing, Leben says officers interested in forensics usually apply to the Forensic Identification Apprentice Training Program.

"We want the trainees to have a few years of basic policing where they can see and conduct investigative work, and witness forensic specialists at work," says Leben.

Among other skills, participants learn to test and evaluate scientific data, examine crime scenes for physical and chemical trace evidence, produce crime-scene photographs, examine tire prints and footprints, write technical reports and recognize fingerprint patterns.

The training not only helps forensic specialists find evidence, it also keeps them safe when handling dangerous materials such as fentanyl.

"When you hear the stories about the opioid crisis and hear the number of people dying from overdoses, shutting down a fentanyl lab feels like shutting down a weapons factory," says the Montreal-based Dove.

He says the drug is highly toxic and 100 times stronger than morphine.

"So when you go into a lab, or handle the drug, the risks and the challenges are multiplied," says Dove. "You need to treat the situation with respect."

Leben, whose work has taken him overseas, says forensic experts must also adjust to the sometimes gruesome realities of the job.

"Before going into a crime scene, you have to give your mind time to process what you're about to see," he says. "Over time, the scientific mind kicks in and you're focused on discovering what happened."

Testifying and other truths

That focus must also extend to the courts, where the forensic expert's work is put to the test by Crown attorneys and defence lawyers.

"It's obviously very stressful," says Walker, who has appeared many times as a witness. "But it's the job of the lawyers to question you. It's your job to know the case and evidence well."

During training, candidates are grilled by senior forensic experts in a mock trial.

"It's challenging," says Walker. "But that's the point — to prepare you for the real thing."

Dove also notes the work is nothing like you'd see on television.

"CSI (crime scene investigation) type shows make it look so simple but it's often much more complicated," says Dove. "But that effort to find an answer is some of the rewarding and challenging work we do."

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