The Podiatry Detectives

Gordon Burrow is one of the UK’s foremost forensic podiatrists specialising in the field of gait analysis.

Gordon, who is based in Ayrshire, was for many years Senior Lecturer in Podiatry at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Today, he runs FM Forensics and is regularly called upon by the police as well as prosecution and defence teams to bring his expertise to cases.

His first case was over 15 years ago in Scotland when he was called in to support the defendant. He analysed his gait, looked at his medical history and filmed him walking to demonstrate how his gait differed from the person in the CCTV footage before the court.

He says: “Forensic podiatry was all very new in those days and there are still only two podiatrists accredited to do forensic gait analysis in the UK. Although awareness of our work is growing, we still face the challenge of having to convince judges and barristers that our expertise is something they can rely upon. We have proved that we add value in cases in which we are involved.

“We have moved forward in leaps and bounds in recent years because we have started to develop a research base. The Forensic Science Regulator also accepts forensic podiatrists as a recognised profession.

“The College of Podiatry works closely with the Forensic Science Regulator to produce standards for the profession.”

Gordon says that the quality of forensic podiatrists is more important than quantity.

He says: “In order to be taken seriously by the courts, practitioners need to be able to demonstrate that they are regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

“Having research under your belt is also considered to be important as is training and, crucially, insurance, particularly if you want to carry out forensic or medico-legal work as expert witnesses are not immune from prosecution. The College of Podiatry does not insure individuals to undertake expert witness work so the insurance has to be obtained independently or through an association such as The Academy of Experts (TAE).

“It is also really important that anyone considering forensic work has a rounded podiatry career behind them and a strong understanding of civil and criminal procedures.”

While these are all vital attributes in being able to practise as a forensic podiatrist, he believes the ultimate test only comes when a practitioner has to stand up in court.

He says: “It is only when you are on your feet in front of extremely clever judges and barristers that you know if you have what it takes.”

Gordon is pleased that podiatry as a whole is becoming a more evidence-based profession, with companies like Algeos assisting through its training and development programmes and by making products and materials such as insoles available to practitioners for research.

He concludes: “We have made a lot of progress in recent years, but we are still a relatively young profession. We need to continue the work on standards so that there is a complete understanding of what we can and cannot do and we also need to continue producing high quality research.

“Finally, we need to have robust regulation to ensure that only those with the right qualifications and experience are allowed to practise.”

If it hadn’t been for a burglary at her student home, Sarah Reel might not have gone down the path of forensic podiatry.

The culprit left behind a complete shoeprint indicating a large area of wear where the big toe joint would be.

Sarah was fascinated, just as she was when she was asked to assist while working as a young podiatrist when a body was recovered from the Manchester Ship Canal with a pressure offloading pad.

Another important factor in Sarah specialising in forensic work was the inspirational academic Professor Wesley Vernon OBE. Together with the Canadian Dr Norman Gunn, the pair are regarded as the two most influential figures in the history of forensic podiatry.

Sarah, who has a PhD in forensic podiatry from the University of Leeds for her work in the field of bare footprint research, has been fortunate enough to be a student of Professor Vernon and, more recently, to collaborate with him on a national research database at Staffordshire University.

Forensic podiatry has been defined as “the application of sound and researched podiatry knowledge and experience in forensic investigations, to show the association of an individual with a scene of crime, or to answer any other legal question concerned with the foot or footwear that requires knowledge of the functioning foot” (Vernon, McCourt, 1999).

Sarah will often find herself called in by the police, CPS or defence barristers to provide an expert view after a bare footprint has been found at a crime scene. The process would involve her analysing the footprint to see if it is suitable to be used in evidence, measuring and evaluating it and assessing its quality.

Sometimes, she is asked to analyse, compare and evaluate insole or inner shoe impressions to associate a shoe with a particular foot using podiatric knowledge and experience. There is a national forensic database for shoeprints which assists with the comparison work Sarah and her colleagues will undertake.

Sarah says: “Footwear examiners are able to ascertain that a shoeprint came from a particular make of shoe or trainer which when matched with a shoe found at a suspect’s home address can help complete a jigsaw. However, sometimes suspects will try to claim the shoes aren’t theirs or even that they bought them from someone else on eBay!

“We will take insoles out or cut a shoe open, taking photographs and analysing and measuring using validated measuring techniques.”

An increasingly busy area of forensic podiatry is in the field of gait analysis. Although Sarah does not specialise in this area, she is aware that around three new cases a week are currently coming into colleagues at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust where she is based.

This work can help to prove or disprove a case as it involves analysing the gait of someone captured on CCTV. With the film often taken from behind someone leaving a scene or with their faces covered, being able to analyse the way someone walks or runs can be invaluable.

Sarah has been a driving force in helping forensic podiatry to be recognised by police and legal teams as a potential avenue they can consider when building cases.

In summer last year, she took over as Chair of the Forensic Podiatry sub-committee of the International Association for Identification (IAI) which helps set standards internationally. Sarah also works closely on standards with the Forensic Science Regulator in the UK.

Thanks to the work of Wesley Vernon, Sarah and others, British forensic podiatrists are considered to be world leaders. There are also highly regarded practitioners in places including Australia, Canada and Holland. Perhaps surprisingly, there are relatively few practitioners in the United States.

Sarah says: “Although awareness is growing, there is still an ignorance of what we can do and the quality of work we produce. There are still too many occasions when our work is not considered by the legal professions.

“Often, we get called in when all other avenues have been exhausted and may be given 48 hours to carry out our work, often working around the clock.

“Forensic podiatry is still not a full-time job for me. I am currently working on three cases in the UK alongside my other work as a clinical podiatrist and visiting lecturer at the University of Huddersfield and the University of Manchester.

“We need to continue raising awareness through presentations and workshops and by producing quality research. Lots of students go into criminology or general forensic science courses but it would be great to see a few more considering a future as a forensic podiatrist.”