High stress in forensic sleuthing

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Decreased revenues are causing forensic labs around the country to close, leaving labs understaffed, overworked, and poorly funded.

Digital forensic examiners gather evidence from digital media such as computers, cell phones, and other devices for use in the prosecution of crimes. Stress level can be high, because searches often involve grim and grisly images, often of child pornography.

“There needs to be some consideration given to how we improve the work experience for forensic digital examiners given that they’re going to be tasked more and more over time,” says Thomas Holt, assistant professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University.

As states and local agencies struggle with decreased revenue, forensic labs in Detroit and elsewhere around the country have been closed, leaving many existing labs understaffed, a backlog of forensic evidence, and major questions about the capacity to reasonably train and staff labs to handle the load.

In a study published in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Holt says police officials should consider hiring more digital forensic examiners or, failing that, improving their work environment. Because the field of digital forensics is relatively new, examiners’ colleagues and bosses may not understand—or even support—their role.

Overall, digital forensic examiners experience a moderate amount of stress but also a high level of job satisfaction.

“It turns out, their levels of stress are directly tied to role conflict where they have different demands on their time and unclear standards for completing a task,” Holt says.

“Generally, there’s no agreed upon process to collect evidence or seize images; there are multiple ways to get to an end point. And this can produce a pretty significant amount of stress—imagine trying to explain to your co-workers or your boss that this is my job and this is how I do it, but they don’t necessarily understand.”

Researchers at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte contributed to the study.

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