20th Century cops versus 21st Century criminals? Heerah knocks Robocop response

Former National Operations Centre (NOC) executive director Garvin Heerah writes a Letter to the Editor on the “loose talk” emanating from the Police Service in the aftermath of the shooting death of Selwyn “Robocop” Alexis:

We can do much better than this! To attack the out-of-control situation with homicides in this country, the authorities need strong leadership and an operational will. Because many of the crimes which are being committed may well be knitted into the tapestry of trans-national organised crime groups, it is clear that it is not inaccurate to describe a large number of them as “drug-related” or “gang-related”.

But are we not more often than not simply taking the line of least resistance?

Photo: Acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams. (Copyright 103FM)
Photo: Acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams.
(Copyright 103FM)

Understandably, the citizenry seems to have very grave doubts about the crime fighting techniques adopted by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS). The evidence suggests that there has been very limited embrace of the new approaches developed for contemporary forensics; there is little recourse to modern science and technology-based techniques in our local forensic investigations.

And so we have to ask ourselves whether the failure to adopt modernised approaches to training and development within the Special Investigations arm of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) and to espouse international best practices, especially in the Forensics Division, is not a way of surrendering the field to the very tech-savvy criminals.

But if the authorities are to have any chance in this currently very one-sided battle, the TTPS needs with immediate effect to adopt policing approaches that move them into the 21st Century.

Let us take an instructive recent example. After Selwyn ‘Robocop’ Alexis was gunned down in a shootout at his carwash-cum-supermarket business place in Enterprise in mid-July, news broke of the alleged subsequent discovery of rifles at his home. What I find disturbing is the loose talk originating from official circles about the possibility that these weapons may have been used to commit other crimes, including homicides.

This seems to me to be a lot of irresponsible talk. It is no secret that the use of firearms and ammunition in serious crimes has increased. But officials cannot go around talking as if it is not a commonplace of criminal investigation that guns leave a trail of the most damning evidence.

Photo: A hooded thug shows off his weapons. (Courtesy Wehearit.com)
Photo: A hooded thug shows off his weapons.
(Courtesy Wehearit.com)

What is required is comparative analysis. And despite the impressive recurrent video images of men in white suits walking up and down crime scenes, the locals are lagging far behind the rest of the world in this area.

Once a gun has been used, even if the victim has survived and is being treated on the scene, the first responsibility of the investigators should be to make a thorough examination of the scene to identify all the factors that may have impacted the event.

The approach to the crime scene MUST be meticulous and thorough, with particular emphasis placed on respecting the step-by-step process. Basic training for crime scene investigators teaches that you have to photograph the scene and look for obvious evidence such as bullet casings and bullet holes, perhaps even a dropped weapon—either at the scene or nearby, in a car, in a drain, under a neighbouring house or in nearby bushes.

But there are other important clues that cannot be overlooked, such as bullet fragments and spatter patterns.

Most of all, there has to be an awareness that all evidence needs to be gathered, preserved without contamination and catalogued for further study back at the lab. I suspect that that is an area where our local investigators often fall short.

Photo: Acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams (left) shakes hands with US Embassy Security Policy and Assistance Coordinator, Juanita Aguirre, at the handing over ceremony of 18 forensic photography kits to the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service by the US. (Courtesy US Embassy)
Photo: Acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams (left) shakes hands with US Embassy Security Policy and Assistance Coordinator, Juanita Aguirre, at the handing over ceremony of 18 forensic photography kits to the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service by the US.
(Courtesy US Embassy)

Let’s take the example of bullets which have lodged in soft surfaces such as wood or cloth. These are, as far as I am aware, often prised out. But that is a practice that should be discouraged, in fact, completely discontinued because every bullet recovered, either from an impact point in a soft surface or pulled out of flesh by a medical examiner or a physician, constitutes a primary piece of evidence.

What should happen is that the general area housing the bullet needs to be cut out so that the bullet can be carefully removed in the lab, where the potential for damage is minimised and the channel that the bullet made can be preserved.

This is because, like fingerprints to a hand, bullets can be matched to a weapon with nearly perfect accuracy. Striations can identify a type and model of firearm so that, even without finding a weapon, investigators will often know the precise type of weapon from which it was fired.

The processes involved in rifling a barrel make each gun barrel unique. That means that the striations on a fired bullet are also unique. An investigator able to fire another bullet from the same gun can lay the bullets side by side under a special microscope and compare the striations to see if the grooves match.

Photo: Another lifeless body prepares for a trip to the morgue.
Photo: Another lifeless body prepares for a trip to the morgue.

And there’s more. A gunman will finger bullets as he loads them into a cylinder or magazine, thus leaving tiny quantities of salty sweat with each touch. The fingerprints left in this way are etched permanently into the casing by the heat generated when a bullet is fired. This means traceable evidence for the careful investigator.

Finally, there are the firing pins. These hard metal parts leave individualised marks on the soft metal primer at the very bottom of each bullet.

So for investigators who know what they are doing and who are prepared to allow science and technology to assist them, there is plenty to work with. But it seems to me that we need an architecture that will maximise the benefits to be derived from making science and technology work for us.

In my considered opinion, there needs to be a deliberate effort made to improve forensic investigations and to upgrade the national architecture. A team of subject matter experts has to be assembled to carry out a needs analysis for the Forensics Division after conducting a review of what currently exists.

I would expect them to recommend an infrastructure upgrade, with expansion of the PoS facility and the addition of facilities in Tobago, South and Central Trinidad. From where I sit, I see a need for specific testing labs for narcotics, firearms, rapes and sex crimes as well as, most importantly, homicides.

Photo: Former National Operations Centre (NOC) executive director Garvin Heerah. (Copyright Trinidad Guardian)
Photo: Former National Operations Centre (NOC) executive director Garvin Heerah.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian)

In this regard, one needs to stress the importance of establishing operational linkages within the region. We need to work with our international counterparts, mainly for standardisation, training and development but also with a view to multiplying the number of available testing labs and the volume of scientific platform resources.

Should we do all these things, some in the short term and some in the long, I think it is a safe bet that much if not all of the idle talk about “drug-related” and “gang-related” killings as well as about guns that “might have been used in the commission of other crimes” is more than likely to become a thing of the past.


Editor’s Note: Garvin Heerah is a former head of the National Operations Centre who now functions as a subject matter expert for Safe City Concept and Homeland Security Solutions.

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  1. Ent Heerah was the Persad-Bissessar administration liason to the illegally reconstituted Flying Squad Investigative Unit who conviently absconded to Argentina when needed to answer questions in connection to that as yet unresolved matter?

    Lasana boy ah does feel fuh yuh, blindfolded eef you chrow ah stone yuh go still hit ah quenk!

  2. Is our acting COP on holiday or gone? I see we have a new acting COP.

  3. Keron, what do you mean when you say: “They will continue to surpass a large portion of their organizational goals…”

  4. Hmph. I’m young-ish and I’m so tired of all ‘de talk’ with this police bizness. Thane Pierre spoke of the potency of SAUTT. I know little of the organization save a few consistent anecdotes. I’m told as Thane described they were very effective (high detection rate), I’m told they relied on science, I’m told there were employees that couldn’t stand returning to TTPS so resigned after SAUTT was disbanded. I’m told they were created because the TTPS could not have been reformed. So the next best bet was to create another police force. I don’t know of any of this is true but what I do know is the TTPS will not be meeting our expectations any time soon namely because they weren’t designed to do so. They will continue to surpass a large portion of their organizational goals and still leave us scratching our heads as it pertains to their overall effectiveness. Heerah’s call is very similar. It argues that if we get a faster, stronger, smarter, more tech savvy police then we will see a drop in violent crime but we won’t. Because I argue (hopefully one day in a book) that TTPS isn’t designed to succeed the way we want it to. It never was. As we speak the main instructor in the TTPS academy is off the chains, world renown, well trained forensic scientist. But why isn’t his training impacting police ops? And I argue because it wasn’t designed to. Love your writing Thane…

  5. I just have a problem with all the people who were in position and did nothing now wanting to know what is being done! Bhoe, KPB, Moonilal are some that jump out at me in this regard.

  6. Fact is. No one leading the country before the election or now seems to have the solutions they claimed to have and we should all be quite concerned..

  7. it’s so funny ..you have all the solutions now when you are out what about the the four or five years you were in charge…you recommended the disbanding of SAUTT & ROPTT…please! you had your chance..

  8. Amazing if Heerah would have actually used this knowledge when he was there it would have great

  9. Though this article provides a noteworthy introduction into Forensic processes and highlights obvious/well documented shortcomings of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service and the Forensic Science Centre, one cannot attempt to castigate these specific stakeholders without providing some context as to ‘how we reach here!’. This issue is of some vintage but a keen observer need not look too far in an attempt to gain a basic understanding. The much maligned Special Anti Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT) will always be used as a reference point when these topics are debated because regardless of which side of the divide you stand, as an objective citizen, one can never discount the strides that were being made in the investigative realm particularly in the area of Forensics.
    The Special Anti Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago had an Investigative Directorate within which there was a Forensic Unit. This unit was divided into two components; The Specialist Evidence Recovery Unit (SERU) and the Crime Scene Unit. Persons who staffed these units were required to have at least a science based first degree and a number of individuals possessed Master Degrees in Forensic Science as well as the accompanying experience in different specialities and subspecialties such as DNA, Mass Disaster Management, Blood Splatter analysis, Crime Scene Management, Trace Evidence Recovery and Analysis.
    There was also a Specialist Crime Academy. This Academy has a Forensic Training Unit. This training unit at time called upon individuals who were highly qualified as well as very experience. This created the ideal environment for members of the different units within the Ministry of National Security to learn from a high cadre of trainers.
    Fast Forward to 2010- The SAUTT was disbanded and disaggregated and nothing was put in place to fill the void. It is noteworthy to mention that Mr. Heera once sat at the helm of the National Operations Centre and more specifically The Specialist Crime Academy in its reincarnation, the Ministry of National Security Training Academy. It will be interesting to know what, if anything at all, did Mr. Heera do or attempt to do in an effort to influence an improvement in our investigative capabilities specifically in the area of Forensics.

  10. A lot of murders eminate from the drug trade . If you look at every time a load of drugs is lost the killings follow . We cant ask the police to stop the raids , can we ? And when the raids are made and the drugs don’t make it to the station but end up on a drug block , who did that ? When next people are interviewing the big brass in the TTPS ask them about the Repeat Offenders Squad , why they were disbanded and where are the officers from that squad. The crime in this country is very easy to bring to a minimal but we like to make it look hard to the benefit of the Mr Big’s .

  11. They can’t do 20th century crime fighting techniques they will do 21st century? They don’t even know how to use the law to fight crime.

  12. What a waste. FACT: The man on the street knows a bit more than him. He did no better when he had that ill defined job. He does himself no justice by spewing…….now selling snake oil as a “subject matter expert”

  13. These deficiencies has been obvious for decades, yet police training has not changed in maybe 4 decades. Our officers always appear unsophisticated and clumsy in the way they carry themselves and serve there function.

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