Jenny Williams spent 14 years as a detective in the Metropolitan Police, and Avon & Somerset Constabulary, before choosing to work with schools to show how crimes are really investigated. CSI Kids works in primary and secondary schools, holiday clubs, youth groups and at children’s parties. Jenny covers subjects from investigation skills to personal and internet safety, and is currently also working on corporate and team building events.
Welcome to Crawl Space, Jenny!
Q. You’ve said that your aim with CSI Kids is to spark an interest in science by setting ‘hands on’ challenges in forensics. It certainly worked with my 11 year old, who came home from school buzzing with news of how she’d spent the day ‘rummaging in corpses’! Can you explain a bit about how you enthuse and educate the kids you work with?
When I was an investigator with the police, I’d often send stuff off to the lab – and results would come back, as if by magic. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and I got stuck into the science of case-solving: DNA, forensics and so on. I think with kids, it’s a similar thing. They have a natural curiosity and they love the hands on aspect of the workshops. I try to treat them like grown-ups as far as possible, setting challenges and seeing what they come up with. And of course I try to make it fun.
Q. What about the kids who want to muck about – do you have any tips for parents/schools?
I put on my old police hat… that generally does the trick! Seriously, though, I think if you engage kids’ imaginations, you won’t have any problems.
Q. You’re an Ambassador for STEM. Can you tell us a little about that? What’s been your proudest moment with them?
Well, I’ve done a couple of STEM workshops in schools, and I hope to go to careers talks in future. If it’s taught well, science can be one of the best subjects at school. I remember making soap in chemistry and absolutely loving it. In one session that I do with kids in the classroom, we construct a strand of DNA out of sweets. They love it. I call it science by stealth!
Q. You were 14 years with the police before you struck out on your own. Can you describe an investigation or two that sticks in your mind?
As a new detective, I was in charge of a drugs investigation where I had to search a house for drugs. There was a brand new patio in the back garden, and they’d given me this tiny dog that was also a newbie. The dog was convinced there was something under the patio. I had to decide whether to risk digging up this very new, very expensive patio – and incurring the wrath of everyone involved if we found nothing down there. The dog was so sure that in the end I gave the order to dig, and we found a thermos flask full of Class A drugs buried about two feet down. That tiny dog went on to become the Met’s top drugs dog.
A bit later, I was working a white collar crime case, involving a suspect who treated me like a bimbo. So I played up to that, let him think I was a dumb blonde, and he ended up tying himself in knots. He was convicted, which was hugely satisfying.
Q. I have to ask, do you read much crime fiction? If so, how realistic do you find it? How about TV crime?
I read very little crime, as I tend to find myself muttering about the inaccuracies. The same goes for TV, to an extent. Take a programme like Silent Witness. Anyone who’s ever actually been in a post-mortem room wouldn’t want to watch it on TV. And don’t get me started on the cross-contamination risks they all run, or the collusion between different parties – where’s their professional distance? All their ‘evidence’ would be thrown out before it ever got to court.
I did enjoy The Bridge recently. The main character being autistic was compelling to watch, even if the story was a bit weak in the end. Today’s mini-series are much better than the old days of The Bill, I think. The idea of the lone cop is just daft, though. The average detective team is thirty people – the only programme that comes close to that is Scott & Bailey with its cast of extras all hard at work in the background.
So much of what goes on in day-to-day policing just isn’t glamorous at all. Take CCTV footage, for instance. On TV, it’s always available really quickly. Well, in real life, a lot of CCTV footage is privately owned and can’t be handed over without paperwork etc. It can take weeks to trawl through just a few days of footage. Oh, and facial recognition software? Doesn’t exist as far as the police are concerned – we do surveillance the old-fashioned way; teams are trained to pass in a crowd, be dishevelled, wear neutral colours, never dye their hair and unlearn the ‘police’ way to drive a car and so on. I remember one day in training after I thought I’d learnt most of the key points of surveillance – it was raining and without thinking I turned up in a bright red mac. My training officer was not impressed!
Q. You run forensic parties for kids, with skeletons and fingerprinting… So much better than the average kids’ party! I heard a rumour that you’re thinking of starting something similar for grown-ups?
Yes! I’m actually thinking of murder mystery weekends, which will be interesting to organise. I was shortlisted for a parties’ award for the kids’ ones, which was great. It'll be fun to tackle grown-ups next.
Thanks, Jenny, that was fascinating – a real insight into your work, past and present.
Find out more about Jenny’s work with CSI Kids here.