In a bid to enhance their investigative capabilities, in May 2023, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Forensics developed an innovative pilot program aimed at improving forensic awareness in underwater search and evidence recovery (USER). Following an environmental scan undertaken within all Australian law enforcement agencies, it was found that no such program existed in Australia.

By Dr Eva Bruenisholz
Australian Federal Police 


user 3 350pxAustralia is surrounded by water, as well as having numerous inland waterways and lakes, and it is well established that bodies of water are prime mediums for disposing of and concealing evidence. Crimes committed in or around water bodies, such as rivers, lakes, and even the ocean, present unique challenges for investigations. Traditional search and recovery techniques often fall short in these situations, necessitating a specialised skill set to collect and preserve evidence effectively. Indeed, an underwater scene should not be considered any different from a dry land scene, and all efforts should be made to fully exploit any evidence located underwater.

user 2 350pxSpecialised diving skills and extensive training are required to effectively examine an underwater crime scene. These skills and capabilities are usually outside of the remit of Forensic Crime Scene Investigators (CSI). Equally, divers lack knowledge in forensic science and crime scene collection techniques. To address this gap, AFP Forensics staff and AFP divers from four teams (Crime Scene, Evidence Recovery, Forensic Operation and Strategy, Performance and Innovation), organised a pilot forensic awareness training program that focused on underwater evidence search and recovery, and the unique challenges posed by aquatic crime scenes. The training draws upon the expertise of experienced divers and forensic specialists, based on a research project conducted in Switzerland and the subsequent training developed for and given to the Swiss Police divers. The trainers shared their knowledge and provided hands-on experience to participants, equipping them with the necessary skills to navigate and investigate underwater environments.

user 4 350pxThe pilot training program covered a wide range of topics essential for successful underwater evidence search and recovery. It consisted of a presentation explaining the general principles of forensic science, challenges created by an underwater intervention, effect of water on various forensic traces, as a remnant of past activities, underwater photography and handling of exhibits during collection. Divers learned how to assess underwater crime scenes, implement effective search patterns to locate items, identify potential evidence, and recover the items while protecting potential latent evidence.

The program placed a strong emphasis on practical exercises and simulations to reinforce the theoretical knowledge gained. Participants engaged in simple simulated scenes in a controlled underwater environment (pool), allowing them to apply their skills in real-life scenarios. These exercises focused on critical aspects like underwater photography, scene description, and evidence documentation and collection, ensuring that officers developed a thorough understanding of the entire process. During their work underwater, divers communicated with CSI on dry land, collaborating to ensure the best outcome.

Considering the wide range of skills needed, the success of processing an underwater scene relies heavily on collaboration. Therefore, in line with the AFP Forensics consultancy model, the course stressed the importance of early engagement with AFP forensic experts and continuous communication and teamwork, to ensure the work undertaken underwater considers forensic needs and the divers’ limitations.

user 1 350pxThe implementation of this pilot forensic awareness training program marks a significant step forward in underwater scene exploitation. By equipping divers with specialised skills in underwater evidence search and recovery, the AFP anticipates an improvement in solving crimes that occur in aquatic environments. Further, by fostering strong partnerships between divers and forensic specialists, the AFP demonstrates its commitment to staying at the forefront of best practices. Very positive feedback was received from the divers with opportunities to now further develop, tailor and implement this training for more divers, around the end of the year in Jervis Bay. This location will allow exploring more complex scenes in an ocean environment and with the participation of CSIs and an experienced American forensic diver. These conditions will not only be closer to the reality of investigations, but it will also strengthen the partnership with CSIs further. Upon refining of the course, there could be an opportunity to expand it to other Australian law enforcement agencies in collaboration with their CSIs.

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