Birmingham & Black Country

West Midlands Police advertises unpaid forensics jobs

Man looking at computer screen Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Volunteers will "routinely come across distressing imagery," says the advert

A police force's appeal for volunteer digital forensic analysts has been branded a "disaster waiting to happen".

West Midlands Police has advertised the unpaid roles, which involve sifting through "distressing [and] indecent images".

Forensics professionals have expressed concerns that volunteers working at least 16 hours a month will not receive adequate emotional support.

The force said welfare was important and check-ups would be offered.

Its job advert warns applicants they will "routinely come across distressing imagery" while investigating data from computers, mobiles devices and other sources.

This could include indecent images, as well as footage of fatal road traffic accidents and CCTV evidence of police incidents.

Some industry experts said they were surprised the position was being offered unpaid.

Forensic specialist Sam Raincock, from Northumberland, described it on Twitter as a "disaster waiting to happen".

"They definitely need counselling pre-role," said Stuart Richards, who carried out scientific investigation work for Gwent Police for 10 years and now teaches Cyber Forensics at the University of Gloucestershire.

"Ideally a psychological evaluation every three months. You've got to be a very strong individual to be able to deal with it... I don't think you can give someone the support they need in that sort of environment in that sort of time frame," added Mr Richards.

Other specialists said the role could be a good opportunity for those wishing to gain work experience.

"I would have thought West Midlands Police would have thought this through very carefully," said Richard Hale, digital forensics lecturer at Birmingham City University.

He said one of his students had already asked for advice about whether to apply.

Image caption West Midlands Police says it has 1,000 volunteer staff

Applicants are required for a minimum of 16 hours a month for at least six months for tasks including the dismantling of computers and the downloading of data, according to the job description.

The candidates, who could be subject to an Enhanced Disclosure Barring Service check, must be 18 and qualified to GCSE level in maths and physics.

About 1,000 volunteers were doing work for West Midlands Police at the end of 2018, the force estimates.

Michelle Painter, the force's assistant director of forensic services, said "highly skilled" volunteers had not replaced staff.

As digital evidence becomes "more vital", she said, "we need volunteers with digital expertise outside of policing to support our investigations".

"Their welfare is an important consideration and is reflected in the age restriction and the recruitment process.

"Occasionally, some investigations do have an element of investigating indecent images but that is not the only aspect of the digital forensics service."

She added volunteers received the same wellbeing care as employees, including regular clinical supervision appointments.

So far this year, 277 police officers in the force have been absent from work due to mental health reasons, equating to almost 9,000 working days.

Leaked documents in November 2017 revealed the force was the smallest it had been in its history, and a Freedom of Information request from February 2018 showed more than 4,200 police officers have been cut since 2010.

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