Giving closure to grieving families

Police specialists at work
Police specialists at work

snow lay thick on the ground and bitter arctic winds blew across the bleak farmland as temperatures continued to plummet. But still the specialist police officers continued their arduous search.

Whenever they took a break the sweat on their faces would immediately freeze. However, there was never any question of them giving up.

Their task was to be able to confirm to the heartbroken family of farmer David Miller (65) and his 75-year-old sister Mary that their loved ones had perished in the early morning fire at their remote Castlerankine farmhouse last December 9.

Central Scotland Police worked alongside colleagues from Central Scotland Fire and Rescue Service and forensic anthropologists from Dundee University in the painstaking hunt.

Leading the search was the force’s Disaster Victim Identification Unit (DVI) made up of serving officers who carry out normal policing duties but are also highly trained and can be deployed at a moment’s notice.

Last year’s incident near Denny was the first time there had been a full deployment of the unit and thanks to the officers’ skills and dedication, they were eventually able to confirm to the family that their worst fears were realised and the pair were dead.

Inspector Andrew Solomon, a senior identification manager with the unit, said: “Our work is always focused on the family. It’s about being able to recover their loved ones as quickly as possible and to do that with dignity. If we can do that it will hopefully be a step towards closure for them at what is a very difficult time.”

DVI procedures are similar worldwide and since the early 1980s, Interpol has clearly defined guidelines that police forces follow. The need for these specialist units in the UK came to prominence in 1989 following the Marchioness disaster on the River Thames when 51 people drowned after the boat was hit by a dredger. It was later discovered the hands of at least 20 of the victims had been removed to aid identification, rather than using dental records.

Detective Constable Scott Keith, CSP’s most highly trained DVI expert and only one of 15 in Scotland to have this level of skills, said: “It was recognised that there was a need for a team of people to deal with victim identification after a mass fatality.

“In 2001 as part of Lord Justice Clarke’s report into the Marchioness incident there were recommendations on how to improve victim identification and in 2007 DVI Scotland was set up.”

The 2004 Asian tsunami had over 200,000 casualties and DVI teams from over 20 countries were co-ordinated by Interpol in a massive operation to identify as many of the victims as possible.

In the UK, the Metropolitan Police Force has been called on to use DVI on several occasions: train crashes at Clapham and Ladbroke Grove and the terrorist bombings on 7/7 just a few of the major incidents they have been involved in.

Inspector Solomon said: “It’s good to be able to say that we don’t have a lot of call for our DVI unit, but at the same time we still have to be able to react at a moment’s notice when needed.

“Castlerankine was the first full deployment and although, there weren’t mass casualties, it was an opportunity to put our skills to use.”

Being able to confirm that a person has been killed in an incident may not always be easy. The police inspector pointed out just because you found a wallet with personal details in a victim’s pockets you can’t assume that the person named on the bank card is the one who has died.

“That wallet may be stolen so we have to go through a very detailed process before it can be formally determined that a person is dead,” he explained. “If it is an incident involving transport, there may be a list of booked passengers which would help, but there are also the foot passengers who have just turned up on the day to consider and in a car crash, someone could have set out with one passenger but offered to give someone else a lift so there may be this other unexpected body.

“Although our aim is also to provide identification as quickly as possible, it is also imperative that we are accurate so the process has to be thorough and robust.”

DC Keith added: “It is also important that where bodies may have been fragmented in an incident, we don’t leave the site and later on a member of the public out walking their dog makes the horrific discovery of body parts.”

In cases where officers fear there may be remains still to be recovered, specially trained cadaver dogs can be brought in to go over the ground.

The inspector said: “Disasters never happen on bowling greens with facilities next to them. It could be a plane that has come down half way up a mountain and there is a five-mile hike to get there. They are always a real challenge for those involved.”

Once remains have been recovered they are always treated with respect. “It may be just an arm that we have found but they would always be transported in a hearse. It’s core to what we are about,” he added.

Although DNA is the most conclusive evidence of identity, other means are also employed to build up a picture of who a victim is. Dental records are very useful – up to 85 per cent of the tsunami victims were identified this way – while artificial body parts, including false teeth and hip implants, are another means as each has a unique serial number.

DC Keith said: “Family liaison officers fill out a highly detailed form with relatives that we would use alongside the post-mortem form to build up a detailed picture. We go to the ‘nth’ degree to be able to confirm to a family that their loved one has died.”

However, Inspector Solomon stressed it was all about teamwork to allow the DVI officers to carry out their task.

“The forensic pathologists are very dedicated and great to work with, we also liaise very closely with the fire and rescue service and the Procurator Fiscal’s office.

‘‘What we are doing is a very difficult, challenging task but the satisfaction is knowing that at the end of the day you have given families closure.”