Although forensic experts have presented evidence such as fingerprints in criminal courts for more than a century, there have been few scientific investigations of the human capacity to identify patterns and impressions. Contrary to popular belief (and television shows like CSI), computers are not relied upon to match crime scene evidence. Instead, human experts decide whether a piece of evidence belongs to a suspect or not. These experts make thousands of identifications per day to be used as evidence in courts of law. It remains unclear what role expertise plays in many other areas of forensics or whether expertise is even necessary to conduct accurate comparisons in many areas of forensic science.
In 2011, eight researchers and three industry partners came together to confront the issue of expertise. We have backgrounds in judgement and decision making, expert diagnostic reasoning, self-regulation in professional practice, forensic expertise and visual complexity, evidence and the law, technology and pattern recognition, and fingerprint identification. The Australian Federal Police and the Queensland Police Service are at the leading edge of the industry and maintain some of the best practices in their discipline, and the Australia New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency – National Institute of Forensic Science Australia is the national peak body for forensic science who encourage collaboration and the development of research.
The Australian Research Council has provided $332,000 over four years in Linkage funding (LP120100063) to develop The Forensic Reasoning Project, which will examine the nature of expertise in identification with a view to improving training and the value of expert testimony. This research will result in a better understanding of the source of identification errors, the factors that influence performance, and the nature of expertise in fingerprint identification. We will provide a scientific basis for demonstrating the validity of forensic methods and measures of uncertainty in the conclusions of forensic analyses. Our work will allow police, intelligence systems and investigators to interpret evidence more effectively and efficiently, help to reduce the amount of time that it takes to turn novices into experts, discourage exaggerated interpretations of forensic evidence, and help in the development of a model of expert testimony.