AFP Makes Waves with New Underwater Crime Scene Program

Australia, Police


In a groundbreaking development, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) is taking its forensic capabilities to new depths with the launch of an innovative program focused on enhancing evidence collection from aquatic crime scenes. The underwater search and evidence recovery (USER) program equips AFP police divers with specialized training and techniques to retrieve crucial forensic evidence from submerged items, including murder weapons, vehicles, and even bodies.

Dr Eva Bruenisholz, an AFP Forensics officer involved in the creation of the program, highlighted the misconception that forensic evidence is washed away when objects or individuals are underwater. She emphasized that by applying USER techniques, the chances of recovering key forensic evidence such as DNA, fingerprints, and firearm and bullet striations are maximized.

Australia’s vast coastline and numerous inland lakes and rivers provide ample opportunities for criminals to conceal or dispose of evidence. This makes it crucial for the AFP to explore techniques that enhance their ability to collect and preserve evidence from aquatic crime scenes. The program not only teaches divers how to handle submerged items with minimal contamination risks but also instructs them on underwater packaging, photography, and video documentation.

Since AFP divers often operate in environments with limited visibility, they have to rely on their sense of touch rather than sight during searches. While underwater photographs may not always be possible, divers can employ buoys on the water’s surface to indicate the locations where submerged items were found. This added information can assist investigators in determining the circumstances surrounding the discovery, such as whether an item was thrown or carried by water currents.

As part of the program, AFP divers also receive basic forensic training and can communicate with forensic crime scene specialists on dry land via radio during underwater searches.

The catalyst for the program’s development was the AFP Maritime Team’s participation in an Underwater Criminal Investigations (UCI) dive course in the United States. During this course, the AFP divers collaborated with various American dive teams, including state police, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and local fire departments. They even assisted the Muscogee Sheriff’s Department in Columbus in the search for a murder weapon in the Chattahoochee River.

The collaboration between the AFP’s maritime and forensic departments led to the establishment of the USER program in Australia. Drawing from a project designed for French and Swiss police divers, a pilot program was developed to enhance forensic awareness in underwater search and evidence recovery within the AFP.

Dr Bruenisholz emphasized that by equipping divers with specialist skills in underwater evidence search and recovery, the AFP aims to increase their ability to solve crimes involving aquatic crime scenes. She likened the advancements in underwater forensic evidence exploitation to the early days of DNA technology, highlighting the importance of collecting and storing items for potential future investigations.