12 February 2018

The accidental academic

DCI Julie Henderson tells us about her innovative work in developing the first in-custody digital footwear scanner and about her accidental journey into academia.

What is Tread Finder?

I had an idea. I believed it would work and I was determined. I wanted to invent a digital scanner for footwear to work in custody suites to reduce the burden on front line staff, link crime scenes to arrested suspects and send this intelligence directly to the investigator's inbox.  Footwear evidence is found at crime scenes as frequently as DNA and fingerprints; yet 230 years of technological advancements across the world have only resulted in the development of computerised databases which barely touch either crime scene or custody capture processes.  When I started this project, my analysis of the custody sampling compliance rates across London for footwear capture from offenders (using the old paper-based method known as 'BigFoot') was less than 1.5% of possible cases.  

When considering the low use of footwear evidence against the regularity in which footwear is recovered from crime scenes, it is no wonder many investigative opportunities are lost.  Paper samples of footwear evidence would sit for days, weeks, even months in plastic custody trays; whereas my solution processes deliver real-time intelligence to investigators within minutes of booking the suspect in to custody.
Initially, I searched the internet for solutions and found a Chinese company willing to travel to lend me a prototype scanner so I could run some tests. I also found another company willing to listen to my ideas for a supporting app which would help with analysis of the footwear evidence.  After persuading a couple of senior leaders to support my ideas, I gathered together a small team to help me (from forensic science, front line cops, custody staff and digital policing). We worked tirelessly to design and test the Tread Finder solution and now, in 2018 (five years after the journey began) Tread Finder is no longer an idea, but a reality. It is fully operational across London and 8 other forces have expressed interest in implementing the technology.  I've just returned from Washington DC, where I was invited by the FBI to assist with their national footwear program and I will be supporting them as they implement Tread Finder across the United States.

Why is research an important element of the product development?

Every aspect of the Tread Finder technology is underpinned with academic research and evidence-based decision making – although when I started out on this journey I had no idea what 'Evidence Based Policing' (EBP) was and certainly had no intention to become an experimental criminologist.  I was motivated by the simple belief that this idea would help police to catch criminals and keep more people safe from harm. 

Within a week of installing a prototype of Tread Finder, compliance rates of custody sampling increased to more than 70%. Costs of taking and processing evidence were lowered by 92% and speed of processing scans was improved by 98%.  Armed with this evidence, a compelling case for change was presented to the Home Office and funding was obtained through the Police Innovation Fund. At that moment, I had no idea that the evaluations I had conducted to demonstrate the potential benefits of Tread Finder were just the start of my academic journey. I was simply measuring the results and presenting my findings to others. I had inadvertently stumbled across Evidence-Based Policing and in turn, became an 'accidental academic'. 

At that time, I'd never heard of EBP and had had little involvement with the College of Policing; but I knew I needed to secure the technology by underpinning it with research and experimentation.
I applied to the College of Policing for a bursary to undertake a Masters programme in Criminology at the University of Cambridge. I successfully received part funding and saved diligently to pay the remaining fees myself. This was a part-time course, and I used all my annual leave and rest days to attend the study blocks.

Was it worth it? Most definitely. I met some truly astonishing police leaders and have listened to some inspirational guest lecturers. It has been a fantastic 2 year journey, culminating in conducting a randomised control trial (RCT) to test the effectiveness of Tread Finder.  RCTs are basically experiments designed to test two types of treatment with randomly selected participants to remove any form of bias.  They are largely used in the medical world. The results from this testing formed the basis of my final thesis for my Masters.  I was able to provide statistically significant evidence that the Tread Finder technology worked. Not only did it work, it is far cheaper, quicker and opens up previously impossible lines of enquiry through linking intelligence.

How have you benefitted from your academic experiences?

Along the way, I have refined my critical thinking skills, writing ability and have applied my learning about targeting, testing and tracking to everyday policing.  I've met some fantastic peers from across the policing world and experienced a level of education I never thought was within my reach. I am also grateful for the support and encouragement of the staff at the College of Policing. The College supports and enables people like me, innovating within policing, to pursue academic education.  There is no doubt that my journey of turning an idea into reality in the policing environment would never have been possible without the support of the College.  Undertaking academic study, draws together people from all backgrounds, with a common goal to develop themselves and implement what they learn in wider society.

My academic journey doesn't end here. I have just started a PhD through the University of Huddersfield where I intend to develop and test more technology, this time focusing on footwear crime scene evidence recovery.

Embarking upon academic research can seem daunting and requires dedication and commitment, especially if this is in addition to your day job.  But the bigger the challenge the bigger the opportunity. The College offers support and opportunities for everyone in policing and aside from my bursary I have also attended a Research Surgery with College researchers and have used the Policing and Crime Reduction Research Map.

If you are reading this, wondering whether you can do academic study, weigh up your desire to succeed and your urge to reach your full potential. Anything is possible with hard work, enthusiasm and the confidence to take up opportunities.  Success comes to people who are always moving forward, trying, failing, trying again and never, ever quitting!

You can contact Julie via her Twitter account: @innovation_cop

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