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AFP Leaders – Dr Sarah Benson, Chief Forensic Scientist

Deploying to the Netherlands for the investigation into the downing of MH17 came with a sense of enormous responsibility for Dr Sarah Benson of the Australian Federal Police – to provide closure to grieving families in a search for justice on a world stage.

We spoke to the AFP’s Chief Forensic Scientist to find out how her journey to the AFP – and inside of one of the world’s most prominent investigations – began in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.

What motivated you to apply to become a police officer/member of the AFP?

My first direct contact with the AFP was during university. One of the supervisors for my honours research project at the University of Technology, Sydney, was an AFP scientist, and I undertook some work experience with the AFP during my last year. This highlighted the role of the AFP and the great people who worked there. A career where I could apply science to help police solve crime and ultimately help the community was really very appealing to me.  I was convinced early on that the AFP was where I wanted to work. I’d like to say that I have never looked back, however over my 20 year career I often look back and wonder how I ended up where I am…in a good way!

How have you seen the AFP change in your time in the organisation?

I have seen significant growth and maturity in how the AFP operates – including our knowledge and frameworks to deliver on a broad policing remit both here in Australia and overseas. I’ve also seen the proactive development, and promotion of sworn female officers around me.

I enjoy working as part of a collaborative leadership team, so this has been a positive experience for me to learn from and work with my counterparts – both men and women.

Tell us about a moment that stands out in your career?

There are many that stand out, but I’ve got two:

The first was Bali, Indonesia in 2002. Just days after three terrorist bombings near the US Consulate caused massive destruction and loss of life.

I can still remember as clear as day, standing on the road at the scene where a small device had exploded. My Victoria Police counterpart asked me what I thought had happened at the site.

My mind was running a hundred miles an hour but nothing came out. I had no idea what to say. I froze, like I was standing in a bubble, but I could feel and hear the traffic racing around me.

I’d spent the best part of two years establishing a new AFP explosives laboratory in Canberra, and here I was standing at my first explosives scene, completely stumped.

This was my first offshore deployment and one of such significance to Australia. It allowed me to experience all the challenges, sensitivities, expectations and opportunities of AFP’s offshore operations.

I can definitely say my experience and hopefully contributions grew from that moment.

The deployment of explosives forensics capability in the field was the first of its kind. We set a makeshift laboratory in a hotel room in Bali and were able to feed preliminary results from the instruments to the investigation in real time.

I learnt so much and the experience continues to inform how we build and transition new capabilities from the laboratory environment to operations.

My second moment would have to be my deployment to the Netherlands as Australia’s Disaster Victim Identification Commander following the downing of MH17 in 2014.

I felt an enormous responsibility to the families of the victims and sense of patriotism and commitment to playing my part in the overall investigation – including providing closure and justice to the families and the Australian community at large.

Many doubted whether a criminal prosecution would ever proceed. Watching the Australian-led Forensic Strategy, together with the forensic results, inform judicial decisions six years on really highlights the profile and credibility of AFP Forensics and its partners on the world stage. 

The aftermath of this tragedy was one of the hardest times I’ve experienced in my career, but it was also a stark reminder to me of the role the AFP can play for Australians in their time of need and the positive impact we can have.

Observing our members step up and never stop, complain or give up – including making some big sacrifices – to put forward our best work, makes me so proud.

The AFP is full of outstanding people who go above and beyond, day-in day-out. You can’t always see it, but it is definitely happening.

What do you think is a common misconception of the AFP?

That we are a large organisation that can do anything, at any time. It just simply isn’t the case. We have limited pools of resources that need to be prioritised and targeted to have the maximum impact and, importantly, in accordance with police powers and other legislative frameworks.

I think we do an outstanding job. It is often the extra effort and the personal sacrifice from our members that ensures the support to the communities we serve is what they need and deserve.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Performing the role of the AFP’s Chief Forensic Scientist.

During my time as Chief Forensic Scientist, I’ve had the opportunity to lead major change and expand the role of forensic science within the AFP. Traditionally, forensic science is used to reconstruct a criminal event to support the judicial process. We’ve taken that a step further.

AFP Forensics is now involved in proactive prevention and disruption of crime through forensic intelligence, and we use specialist capabilities in novel ways to ensure community safety and security.

I hold a very privileged position – I am responsible and accountable  for an amazing group of scientists, technical specialists and professionals who maintain and deliver a range of specialist capabilities to have an impact against the criminal environment.

Our role, capabilities, people, profile, impact and value – all make me so proud.

What challenges do you believe the AFP will face going forward?

I think the challenge for the AFP is keeping pace with a criminal environment that continues to change due to advances in technology and the evolving global security picture.

This impacts the types of crimes, how they are executed and the threats they pose to the Australian and international community. We want to continue to work hand-in-hand with our partners to investigate crimes as they occur and prevent those crimes hitting our shores and impacting Australians.