AFP goes underwater to recover forensic evidence using cutting-edge program

“We owe it to the community to introduce new techniques to solve crimes and protect the Australian community.”

In an Australian first, the AFP is advancing its forensic capabilities with the rollout of a new program aimed to enhance evidence collection from aquatic crime scenes.  

The underwater search and evidence recovery (USER) program provides training and techniques to AFP police divers for the recovery of crucial forensic evidence from submerged items including murder weapons, vehicles or bodies.

Image: AFP USER Pilot Divers (Source: AFP)

AFP Forensics officer Dr Eva Bruenisholz, who helped create the AFP program, said there was a common misconception that forensic evidence was washed away if an object or person was underwater.

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“While water does have an effect on forensic traces, applying USER techniques maximises the chances of recovering forensic evidence such as DNA, fingerprints and firearm and bullet striations,” she said.

“Australia’s extensive coastline and numerous inland lakes and rivers where criminals might try to conceal or dispose of evidence make it important to explore any techniques to enhance the AFP’s ability to collect and preserve evidence from aquatic scenes.”

Dr Bruenisholz said the program taught divers how to minimise the handling – and therefore the potential contamination – of submerged items during collection, as well as how to package exhibits while underwater and take photographs and videos during the search process. 

“AFP divers are often searching in rivers or lakes where they have very limited visibility, so they are searching for evidence by feel rather than sight,” she said.

“While this means underwater photographs may not always be possible, divers can also set up buoys on the water surface to indicate where submerged items were found.

“This can then assist investigators to establish how and why a person or an item was found at a particular place – such as did they fall or were they thrown, or did water currents impact the location.”

Image: AFP USER Pilot Divers (Source: AFP)

As part of the program, AFP divers are given basic forensic training and awareness. During underwater searches they can communicate via radio with forensic crime scene specialists on dry land.

The AFP’s participation in an Underwater Criminal Investigations (UCI) dive course in the United States in October 2022 was the catalyst for developing the program.

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AFP Maritime Team Detective Senior Constable Chris Markcrow said AFP maritime members spent eight days in Columbus, Georgia, training alongside a range of American dive teams, including state police, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and local state fire departments.  

“During the trip, AFP police divers assisted the local Muscogee Sheriff’s Department in Columbus search the Chattahoochee River for a murder weapon from one of their active investigations,” Det Sen-Const Markcrow said.

“The AFP divers were able to learn from their US counterparts in a real-life scenario, while also navigating the dangers of the waterway – including keeping themselves safe from an alligator seen only a few hundred metres downstream.” 

Image: AFP USER Pilot Divers (Source: AFP)

When they returned, the Maritime members reached into AFP Forensics to learn more about the AFP’s collection of underwater forensic evidence.

Collaboration between the two areas resulted in a combined effort to improve forensic awareness in underwater search and evidence recovery within the AFP. It was identified that no USER program had been established in Australia, so a pilot program was developed based on a project produced for French and Swiss Police divers.

Dr Bruenisholz said by equipping divers with specialist skills in underwater evidence search and recovery, the AFP believed it would increase the ability to resolve crimes that included aquatic crime scenes.

“Similar to DNA 30 years ago, we don’t know what technological advances may happen in the future to enable better exploitation of forensic evidence from items that have been in water,” she said. “This makes it important to collect and store items for potential future investigations.

“We owe it to the community to introduce new techniques to solve crimes and protect the Australian community.”

Image: AFP USER Pilot Divers (Source: AFP)

AFP Crime Scene Investigator Simon Gardner, who participated in the development of the program, said the success of processing an underwater crime scene relied heavily on collaboration.  

“The communication between police divers and crime scene investigators is a key component of the underwater search and evidence recovery,” he said.

“The program places a strong emphasis on the importance of AFP crime scene investigators engaging early with police divers to ensure the work underwater considers forensic needs and takes into consideration any diving limitations. 

“The program will be rolled out across AFP maritime members in Australia over the next 12 months. We will also continue to liaise with international law enforcement partners to refine and develop new USER techniques and concepts.

“Depending on interest, there could be an opportunity to expand the training to other Australian law enforcement agencies in collaboration with their Crime Scene Investigation units.” 

Det Sen-Const Markcrow said an AFP diver had successfully recovered a crime victim’s belongings from Canberra’s Lake Tuggeranong since receiving the training.

He said the techniques included using search patterns, which had enabled a new AFP diver to find small items, including keys and a phone.

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