So, you want to be a police photographer?

Ex scenes of Crime Officer, Keith Hart, explains all there is to know about becoming a police photographer.

Posted 05/Sep/2005 - 12:00AM

crime photographyPolice Photographer – is there such a job?
Okay then, you just love photography and can’t get enough of all those police programmes such as CSI? So what better job could you wish for than being a police photographer? If you answered yes to either of the above then this is the article for you, the article that tells it as it really is, and also just how you can go about getting the job. That is if you still want to after reading the article!

The first question to deal with though is this: is there actually such a job? Yes, but no, is the confusing answer. There are a couple of police forces in the UK who still employ photographers, the Metropolitan Police is one of them (but they do things differently to most UK police forces) but nowadays the vast majority of forces use their Scenes of Crime Officers (SOCO, or often now known as Crime Scene Examiners, CSE) to do the photography. The vast majority (about 95%) are civilian employees.

Until earlier this year I worked as a SOCO for the West Midlands Police and in line with many UK forces they amalgamated the Photographic Department with the Scenes of Crime Department about 7 years ago. The existing photographers were offered redeployment as SOCOs and had to retrain. Some left the force and a few retired early but the majority made the change.

This amalgamation did make sense. The SOCOs were trained as photographers and took ‘forensic’ photographs of such things as footwear marks and tool impressions (all in B&W) and the photographer was called to the same location to take general colour photographs of the scene. There were only a few photographers and therefore there was often a considerable delay in them attending at a crime scene. This of course meant that the SOCO, who had a camera, was wasting time waiting for the ‘photographer’ to turn up.

As you can imagine this ‘amalgamation’ was not popular with the ‘photographers’ at the time but most eventually settled down to their new and expanded role.

So, the fact is, if you want to be a pure and simple ‘Police Photographer’ the chances of you finding a vacancy are VERY small indeed. In fact you would probably have more chance of becoming an astronaut!

If you want to take photographs at crime scenes then you are most likely going to have to become a SOCO. Then of course photography will just be a small part of your job.

Are you still reading? Yes, then I’ll give you a bit more bad news first, before we get down to what the job actually entails.

All over the UK there are colleges offering courses in crime scene examination and ‘forensics’. There are even many universities offering similar courses. There must be over 10,000 people in the UK at this very moment doing a course which they think will lead to them getting a job in ‘forensics’. Much of this is due to the perception of life as a SOCO or CSI generated by various television series. I can tell you this from personal experience, I wish I had a pound (as the saying goes) for each time someone said to me, ‘I love all this stuff, I never miss CSI on the telly…’

Ten thousand people a year getting a ‘forensic’ qualification. This brings up two points.
1.These qualifications are NOT accepted by the police forces, you still have to do the CENTREX course (more of this later).
2.There are less than 3,000 SOCO posts in the UK!

With less than 3,000 SOCO posts in the UK there are probably less than 30 vacancies per year and at least 10,000 people taking a qualification. You do the math!

When I applied to join the department there were over 1,500 applicants, and that was years ago before the job was so popular!

Just to depress you aspiring police photographers even more (I did say at the beginning that I would tell is just how it is), almost all of these vacancies will be taken up by people already employed by the police, such as the recent post of ‘volume crime examiner’ (VCE) and ‘forensic vehicle examiner’ (FVE).

These are restricted posts where the employee receives a much more limited training than a SOCO, they are also paid a LOT less. However, many of these VCEs and VEs take on the role specifically as a stepping stone to becoming a fully fledged SOCO. As they are already partly trained they have a head start over anyone coming from university or college.

What actually does a SOCO do all day?
The basic role of a SOCO is to examine crime scenes and to recover and preserve evidence. This can be broken down into three areas: fingerprints, forensic, photography. In the day to day operations of the department the majority of the time is spent looking for fingerprints, the next most common task would be recovery of forensic evidence with photography coming in third place.

The SOCOs work a limited shift system covering from 08.00 hours to 21.00 hours 7 days a week and 365 days a year. They will also provide cover for call out to major crime scenes during the night.

A typical working day would begin at 08.00 hours with a cuppa in the office whilst the computer system is interrogated for the day’s jobs. During the previous 24 hours the officers in the control room will have been sending police officers to various crime scenes and according to government and force guidelines these will have been deemed suitable for a visit by the SOCOs. This will mainly be burglaries and recovered stolen vehicles. There could be the occasional photographic job, such as an assault victim. Most SOCO offices have 5 SOCOs and perhaps one or two vehicle examiners. Of course the SOCOs will not all be on at the same time.

The jobs will be divided between the staff with the vehicle examiners taking the vehicle crime and the SOCOs taking the burglaries and photographic jobs. Before leaving the office there will be the inevitable paperwork to sort out. Paperwork is VERY important and believe me there is a lot of it. It may be about 09.30 hours before the SOCOs get out on the road.

There may also have been some incident or crime overnight that is of a more urgent nature that the SOCO will need to liaise with the CID about and to sort out before dealing with the routine volume crime.

Each SOCO will have a van and equipment and will decide on priorities for the day’s jobs. Of course if anything major, such as a robbery, serious assault or suspicious death crops up during the day, the SOCO will divert from their volume crime jobs and deal with that. Such jobs inevitably take longer to deal with than the volume crime so very often the day’s plans soon go awry.

For a routine day the SOCO will return to the office about 14.00 hours to begin to sort out the paperwork associated with the day’s evidence. The West Midlands Police has a computerised system for the submission of evidence with bar codes and this has made the submission and auditing of the evidence trail much more effective. This audit trail for the evidence is of paramount importance as evidence that can be shown to be unaccounted for at any stage can be thrown out of court and a case lost.

The department has guidelines (set by the government) for priorities and timescales for the submission of evidence. In the majority of cases for example fingerprint evidence must be submitted within 24 hours. In practice, as you have no idea what you will be doing the following day it must be submitted before you go off duty. This is why you will often need to return to the office a couple of hours before your shift ends.

In a busy metropolitan force such as the West Midlands there will inevitably be a lot of major crime, such as, robbery, serious assault, rape, murder. These will be dealt with as they happen, and if they happen at night then a SOCO, often at Scene manager level will be called out to deal with it.

So what sort of photography jobs would a SOCO deal with?
At a volume crime scene there may be footwear marks left by the offender. These may need to be photographed. This will be done in B/W with as 100 asa film and scales. It has to be done at 90o to the mark if possible as the photograph will need to be reproduced at 100% scale for forensic comparison at a later date.

There could be marks left by an instrument (jemmy) that the offender has used. Again this will need to be photographed in B/W with 100 asa film and with a scale for later reproduction at 100% size.

Accuracy, clarity and detail are of paramount importance with this type of photography, but you are often working under pressure to complete the job as soon as possible.

For a major crime scene such as an armed robbery or rape you may need to take ‘scene’ photographs. They will be general shots of the scene, in colour, usually at 165 asa. Most of these shots will either be done with a standard 50 mm lens or a wide angle lens of 22 mm. The SOCO has to be careful NOT to distort the photographs if possible so that an accurate view of the scene is given. Inevitably for an indoor scene the wide angle lens is needed to photograph inside rooms. However for a road traffic accident the standard lens is used so that the investigators or magistrates do not get a false impression.

Assault victims are usually photographed in the studio and most SOC offices have a small basic photographic studio. This will consist of a white backdrop and a couple of studio flashes. These photographs will be done in colour and possibly in B/W with a scale if the photograph is needed for forensic comparison.

Some of the most difficult scenes to photograph are arsons. Very often you will be in a partly destroyed building blackened by smoke, it will be damp, steamy and very often at night with no ambient lighting. These are the times when you really get to know your camera equipment!
The photography at murder scenes will be done in colour for the general shots and B/W for any forensic marks. There will also be a video recorded for briefing purposes. Let me clear up one misconception right now…you DO NOT draw a white line around the body!

Another technically difficult scene to photograph would be a road accident at night. You will be using colour film and very often on open flash. There will be all sots of lighting problems that add to the challenge. There will be a lot of fill in flash used and long exposures which are complicated by the flashing lights of the police vehicles and the movement of traffic and huge dark shadows.

The main thing to remember with police forensic photography is that you are there to accurately record the scene and evidence as it actually is at the time. You are NOT recreating a scene and you are not adding any artistic interpretation.

Photographic Equipment
To be honest you may be surprised to find that some of the photographic equipment used by SOCOs seems to be from the ‘dark ages’. For example when I left the West Midlands Police SOC Dept at the beginning of this year (2005) the standard camera was the Nikon FM2 with a 50mm lens and a 22mm wide angle. This was used with a Metz45 flash. And that folks was just about it apart from a Quantum flash battery pack and a tripod. Not very exciting, but very reliable.

I was trying out a Nikon D100 which was giving good results and it was planned to move over to the digital cameras within a couple of years.

I must mention here that there is NO problem using digital photography for forensic work. Digital video has been used for several years now and there are guidelines issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and accepted by the courts governing the evidence trail for digital photography Indeed some forces SOCOs are already converted over to digital.

For most SOCOs the problem with digital photography will not be the use of a DIGITAL camera but the use of a MODERN camera with loads more features.

Training to be a SOCO
For the majority of police forces in the UK (the Metropolitan Police being the usual exception) the training of SOCOs is undertaken by CENTREX (http://www.centrex.police.uk/home.html) and a visit to their website will give full details of the courses available. The SOCOs start of with the ‘Initial Crime Scene Investigator’ course. As the courses are fully detailed on the website, there is no point in me repeating the information. However, I will detail what the actual process involved.

After recruitment the trainee SOCO will be allocated to a SOC office where they will work 8-4 and will work shadow one of the trained SOCOs. At this stage they will not be allowed to actually do anything, but it gives them a chance to see how the job goes. After a few weeks or months thy will be sent to Durham to the CENTREX training establishment for their initial 9 week course, covering fingerprints, forensic and photography. On their return they will work supervised at volume crime scenes until they are deemed competent to work on their own. They will also be introduced to more serious crime scenes under supervision. After about 18 months they will return to CENTREX for a ‘development’ training course and provided they are successful they will be deemed qualified after 2 years.

The SOCO also has the option to take the Crime Scene Examiner’s diploma which is authorised and administered by Durham University. This will lead to an official post-nominal (letters after your name) Dipl.CSE Dunelm. To get this qualification the SOC will be required to complete an assessment book with regular assessments and updates and also a series of projects and a final more detailed study. Each are checked by the university and the qualification is dependant on final assessments and also in passing the CSE Centrex course.

Even without the diploma the qualified SOCO can register as a ‘Forensic Practitioner’ on a national database.

One good thing about the job is the regular training courses. You will need to continue your training to gain promotion.

For example there a 4 levels of SOCO:

  • Level 1 –Training
  • Level 2 – Qualified at basic level
  • Level 3 – Crime Scene manager
  • Level 4 – Supervisor

A level 3 Crime Scene Manager in a force such as the West Midlands Police will be on a basic salary of about £30,000 per year. This includes shift and callout allowance. In addition to this in a busy force there will be plenty of opportunities for overtime so the salary of a Crime Scene Manager would be in the region of £30,000 to £35,000.

In comparison to this a ‘Volume Crime Examiner’ or ‘Forensic Vehicle Examiner’ would be on a basic salary (no overtime allowed) of about £14,000 per year. So you will see why they all apply for the SOCO jobs!

I mentioned that there is a lot of further training available. For example just some of the training courses I attended were:

  • Bomb scene management
  • Crime Scene Manager
  • Advanced fire investigation
  • Health and Safety Assessor (the most boring course I’ve ever been on)
  • Refresher (various)
  • Drugs testing
  • Video operator
  • Mentor training

The list goes on and on but I’ll stop there as this is not my CV!

As a Crime Scene Manager you will be responsible for the forensic examination of major crime scenes such as murder cases. This will involve liaison with the detective in charge of the case (for murders this will usually be a Detective Chief Inspector) and you will be responsible for directing a team of SOCOs. This, as you can imagine is a very responsible and pressurised job.

The gory side of the job
There are many aspects of the job that, to say the least, are not pleasant. For example you could be at the scene of a suspicious death where a partly decomposed body has been found in a dirty flat. Not only will you have to examine the body in situ but you will have to bag it up and later attend the post mortem to take photographs and samples.

You will be working in some very dirty, smelly and dangerous environments (hence the H&S course). You will quickly get to grips with the seedy side of life.

The work can be very distressing. For example I dealt with a scene in a house where there were 3 children aged 3yrs, 5 yrs and 7 years, plus both parents stabbed, battered to death and hung. I was there for 2 weeks and the post mortems took a total of 8 hours. How would you deal with that?

I have often been asked how I coped with this side of the job. Well, I never really thought much about it at the time, but you get a lot of support from your colleagues and you treat the situation with a very professional outlook. You have a job to do and it is important to do it well. You must treat these jobs in a very professional and dispassionate manner. You can not afford to get emotionally involved and you must shut off when you leave work.

Having said that, a forensic post-mortem is very interesting and you have so much to do that you do not have much time to worry about the ‘smell’. It is usually the poor police officer in the viewing gallery that ends up feeling ill!

How to apply for the job
Still interested? Well I’ll give you a few tips about applying for the job.

To find out if there are any vacancies the best place to start with is your local police force. You can contact them via their website or simply telephone them and ask for the Scientific Support Department. Most of the vacancies will be advertised internally so it is also an idea to get to speak to any of your local SOCOs who can let you know if anything comes up.

What they will be looking for is a mature and educated person who has demonstrated some scientific or photographic aptitude. So if you have any photographic qualification or have passed any exams in a science subject it will help.

As I mentioned before one way into the department is to start out as a VCE or FVE but this is no guarantee and the wages are low. However if you are determined then it is well worth considering.

Your application form must be completed EXACTLY as asked for and must be very neatly filled in. For example, if they say use black ink, then use BLACK ink. Believe me I know that many application forms are rejected because the applicant has not read the instructions properly.

If you get to the interview stage then just think what sort of questions you will get asked and have your answers ready. You can guarantee that you will be asked how you would cope with the gory side of the job. Think of your answer before you go into the interview. You would also be asked about working shifts and about being on call. Forewarned is forearmed as they say.

It is a long hard road to get into the job and when you get there it is a difficult and stressful job, however it is very interesting, varied, pays okay and is secure and also gives you tremendous satisfaction when you turn up the vital piece of evidence that catches and convicts a murderer. But just remember this, when you are reading the results of a successful murder trial in the paper, you will see all the praise go to the CID and the Forensic Science Service with never a mention of the people at the sharp end, the Scenes of Crime Officer.

Remember, I did say that I would tell you how it REALLY is…

Useful Websites
Centrex (SOC Training)
Police (links to UK police forces)
Forensic Science Service

Article by Keith Hart Dipl CSE Dunelm

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