Annual report: NFI to focus on innovation, automation, national and international cooperation, and acceleration
This year, the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) will focus on continued acceleration, automation, national and international cooperation, innovation and outsourcing of non-complex investigations to external parties. The NFI is a world-leading forensic institute and wants to keep it that way. To this end, investments in a number of areas such as ICT need to be made in the near future. “We need to invest now so we can continue to help solve crimes in the future”, says Marc Elsensohn, CEO of the NFI.
2020 was the year when the COVID-19 pandemic tested the flexibility of people and organisations. “There is no activity at the NFI that was not affected, either in the primary process or in the backroom support,” says Elsensohn. The NFI provides independent answers to complex, criminal questions. The institute advises the Police and the Public Prosecution Service on the collection of trace evidence at crime scenes. The NFI also performs forensic analysis on trace evidence and submits reports to the Police, the Public Prosecution Service and the courts.
Agreements on forensic case investigation, R&D and knowledge exchange
Each year, the NFI makes agreements with the Ministry of Justice and Security and its partners in the criminal justice chain about the services to be provided. These are recorded in a Service Level Agreement (SLA). The SLA sets out how much capacity the NFI has available for case investigation, research and development and knowledge exchange for the Public Prosecution Service, the Police and the courts.
Forensic case investigation
After the COVID measures came into force, the Police, the courts and the Public Prosecution Service coordinated their activities on a weekly basis in line with the changes in the crime situation and staffing levels. In 2020, production for the Public Prosecution Service, the Police and the courts was more or less delivered in compliance with these agreements.
In 92.4% of cases, the NFI delivered the products within the agreed timeframe. In recent years, the average delivery time has fallen to 15 days. Because the nature of the investigation questions varies greatly from one forensic area of investigation to another, the average delivery time also varies. In the teams that investigate things such as explosive attacks, weapons, gunshot residue, non-human biological trace evidence and explosives, the average delivery time was 10 days. In the teams that carry out toxicology and bone analysis, the average delivery time was 44 days. There are also teams that produce results within a few hours or days. For example, the DNA rush service can provide results in just three hours. Preliminary reports of forensic autopsies are also delivered to the Police and the Public Prosecution Service as soon as they are completed.
Changing influx of work due to COVID-19
The volume of work has decreased; all departments completed more work than they received. Efforts were made to reduce delivery times through a combination of automation, adjustment of work processes and application of new methods and techniques at the NFI.
However, in terms of numbers, production is lower than agreed in the SLA. COVID had an impact on crime, which has also had to adapt. For that reason, NFI started a weekly consultation with the Police and the Public Prosecution Service – the ‘chain call’ – to align production and capacity to the needs of the Police and the Public Prosecution Service. In addition, the practice of collecting DNA material from convicted offenders was temporarily halted, which led to a drop in work for the NFI’s DNA Department. This practice has now started up again. All offenders who have been found guilty by the court of a crime carrying a prison sentence of more than four years provide DNA for inclusion in the DNA database for criminal cases.
Always more, always faster
Delivering investigation results faster and faster and performing guiding analyses to provide as much support as possible to the investigation process are increasingly central to the NFI’s work. The demand for more and faster forensic investigation is continuing, so, in accordance with the Vision for Forensic Investigation, NFI is assessing whether some investigation work could be done by market operators. In 2020, work was done in the field of DNA analysis on the start-up and implementation of the pilot projects ‘fast DNA street’, ‘fast ID line’ and ‘local DNA’. The most common forensic investigation types are simplified, standardised, automated and, where possible, transferred to police laboratories or outsourced to market operators. This frees up capacity for the NFI to invest in more complex and multidisciplinary case investigations.
Research and development
The NFI is continuously renewing and improving its case investigation work. Digital innovations ‘made the impossible possible’ in 2020, for example by cracking EncroChat. Over the past year, important innovations have been made in digital investigation: from cracking phones to applying artificial intelligence when analysing seized material such as photos, videos and sound recordings. Ninety-five percent of R&D hours were spent as planned, despite the COVID constraints that have also made the NFI’s work more difficult. “Innovations are important for the NFI to continue to perform case investigations at the required quality level and to maintain our nationally and internationally-recognised position as an excellent forensic institute”, says NFI Director of Science and Technology Annemieke de Vries. “The NFI has a unique range of over 35 forensic areas of expertise under its roof. The challenge facing the institute is to remain robust and relevant in all these areas, and to use state-of-the-art forensic investigation methods. Many of the NFI’s research and development activities are therefore aimed at ongoing development in these areas.” The wide diversity in the NFI’s areas of expertise also offers new opportunities. De Vries says, “By combining different forensic areas of expertise through a multidisciplinary approach, more and more crimes can be solved.” New NFI-wide research projects will flesh out these multidisciplinary themes.
Strategic research programme
The NFI wants to be agile, flexible and able to act quickly on developments in science and technology. Through its strategic research programme, the NFI is responding to the forensic demands of tomorrow. “Technological, scientific and forensic developments are happening at lightning speed. We have limited availability of investigation resources to devote to the timely anticipation of such developments. It’s therefore very important that we’re able to better focus our capacity on what is considered relevant and urgent”, says De Vries. To this end, the NFI is looking to collaborate with other forensic institutes and universities in the Netherlands and abroad, such as the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Lausanne. In addition, the NFI is deploying targeted capacity to renew, accelerate and improve the forensic investigation chain, in conjunction with the Police and the Public Prosecution Service.
The results of most innovations and the R&D results for 2020 were published in various scientific journals. In 2020, NFI staff contributed to more than 35 scientific publications.
For example, NFI staff worked with researchers from Delft University of Technology on a method to establish a link between a fire and a suspect based on the composition of the petrol used. The results were published in the prestigious journal ‘Nature Scientific Reports’. Together with the FBI and the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), the NFI developed software to automatically compare striations and impressions on firearm bullets and casings. Automation of the comparative trace analysis should complement visual examinations by firearms experts. Further steps were also taken to develop software for the automatic interpretation of DNA profiles. The first DNAxs licence was sold to an international forensic institute. Another piece of software that reached its final version in 2020 after a long period of development and optimisation is STRNaming. In the near future, DNA profiles will also be created using Massively Parallel Sequencing (MPS), a method widely used in medical diagnostics and research because of its additional possibilities; STRNaming could become an important international standard.
Sharing knowledge and boosting expertise
The NFI trains forensic staff to become expert professionals. The essential accreditations to perform investigations according to national and international standards were renewed in 2020. The NFI also provides training on forensic techniques and new developments to its partners in the criminal justice chain, such as the Public Prosecution Service, the courts and the Police. Training external parties was initially severely hampered by the pandemic, but thanks to committed NFI staff, the training programme was energetically delivered despite being largely converted to online teaching. Animations and videos were created to help staff at the Public Prosecution Service, the Police and the courts understand NFI forensic investigations and processes. The NFI had set aside more than 9,000 hours to boost expertise among its partners in the criminal justice chain, but in the end only two-thirds of the agreed hours were used.
In mid-December 2020, the assessment panel led by Ms Sorgdrager released the report of its second assessment. There is still work to be done, but the NFI is addressing the rising trend. The committee made a number of recommendations to the NFI, the Ministry of Justice and Security, the Police and the Public Prosecution Service. The NFI accepts all recommendations that relate to the institute.
In the coming year, the NFI will continue to develop the aforementioned Vision for Forensic Investigation. In addition to managing the consequences of the pandemic, the NFI has identified three challenges it will work on in 2021. The NFI will have to replace laboratory equipment and other assets over the next few years, and its ICT systems are in need of future-proofing. The systems of the NFI, the Police, the Public Prosecution Service and the courts must be aligned to make it easier and more secure to exchange information. The NFI also needs to address the retention and destruction of physical/human material and data. The NFI has no formal retention function and relies on decisions by the Police and the Public Prosecution Service for information on which evidence should be retained or destroyed.
Lastly, the NFI’s budget for last year was not balanced. The total budget of 83 million had a deficit of almost 3 million. This was partly due to the pandemic, but mainly due to higher expenses for ICT and equipment. The deficit was largely resolved last year from equity capital. The 2020 production level for the Police, the courts and the Public Prosecution Service, as well as the budget for R&D, will be adjusted downwards from 2021 onwards to account for the increased burden. In the 2021 Annual Plan, the NFI indicated that the production agreements contained reductions of between 1.6 and 2 million euros. From 2022 onwards, these deficits will increase to over 4 million euros annually. Director Elsensohn says, “Cutting production hurts, but we have no other option within the current financial frameworks. NFI staff love nothing more than helping to solve crimes. It’s what we’re good at, and we want to keep doing it without any cuts. The higher structural expenditure on ICT and equipment is absolutely necessary. Doing nothing is no longer an option.” The 2022 budget is still being discussed with the Ministry of Justice and Security. The Minister recently announced that an additional 1 million euros would be made available this year for forensic investigation. “That eases the pain to a large extent for this year, but unfortunately it does not resolve the deficits in the years to come”, says Elsensohn.
Solving more crimes in the future
The demand for forensic investigation continues to rise; as Elsensohn points out, “It will keep rising for some time. That’s why, in addition to the highest possible production, the NFI continues to invest in the future by continuing to simplify, standardise, automate and learn from or outsource to the market. With help from market operators and partners, we can help solve even more crimes in the future.”