Two integral parts of the Criminal Justice System are the Forensic Sciences Centre (FSC) and the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS). The FSC is a state institution and is the sole provider of traditional forensic laboratory services for Trinidad and Tobago. The Centre routinely receives and analyses evidence from the various stakeholders.
Consequently, it is rare that the scientists are required to be offsite to collect evidence for analysis, which is something that should be reconsidered. The responsibility to provide satisfactory samples for analysis therefore falls on the various state agencies.
As the primary law enforcement agency (LEA), the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) is at the centre of the majority of criminal investigations in Trinidad and Tobago and, as a result, is directly responsible for the collection of items and samples for forensic analysis.
A police officer is usually the first representative of the State to respond to a reported crime and the police officer’s role usually extends from the commencement of the investigation right through to its conclusion. Lack of adequate training has resulted in restricted awareness and the view that forensics start ‘when the people in the white suits get here’.
However, the role of the first responder is probably the most critical. One of the main roles of the first responder is to secure the crime scene because it is at the critical time of the arrival of the first responder that vital information and/or evidence can be saved or lost.
In order to ensure that it is the former and not the latter, the first responder must be able to identify the crime scene. Though this may sound like a tongue-in-cheek comment, it is in fact a teaching point which requires attention because the extent of a crime scene is not always obvious.
This ignorance can be readily observed on the TTPS-sanctioned programme ‘Beyond the Tape’ and other similar productions.
In 2011, as a result of the restructuring of national security assets, the TTPS inherited a working template for crime scene management together with a group of satisfactorily trained crime scene investigators. Assuming that these inherited resources were properly managed, it is my considered opinion that the TTPS is underachieving in the area of crime scene management.
That leads me to suggest that the crime scene investigation capabilities of the TTPS need to be immediately reviewed and all shortcomings, from training to operation, corrected. Further, if we are to produce favourable results in the short term and build capacity in the long term, organisational restructuring is absolutely necessary.
As things stand, the Homicide Bureau of Investigations (HBI) has its own pool of crime scene investigators (CSI) who are perceived to be better than the ‘regular’ crime scene investigators scattered throughout the various divisions who handle ‘less serious’ crimes.
For as long as we continue to fall short at this very important stage, the tale from crime scene to courthouse will continue to be have very few happy endings. We are well into the second decade of the 21st Century and there ought not to be an over-reliance on ‘I see’ witnesses.
A high-functioning Crime Scene Investigations Department is critical, and I daresay, even impacting directly on detection and subsequent conviction rates. While the TTPS’ head and body continue to readily boast of the organisation’s crime scene investigation capabilities, it is safe to say that the standards to which they hold themselves are woefully low.
There is more to crime scene investigation than merely recruiting for a department persons who received little more than a crash course.
As the Criminal Justice System continues to teeter at the edge of the precipice, the Forensic Science Centre has been able to keep a very low profile, save and except for August 2014, when it was reported that over 40 guns lodged therein had been stolen from it.
Yes, 40 guns were stolen—or said to have been stolen—from an institution that is supposed to be a fortress of integrity and accountability.
Internationally, the use of forensic science in criminal investigations and judicial proceedings has increased tremendously over the last 30 years. While recent forensic breakthroughs include the ability to harvest DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) profiles from sources deemed inadequate 30 years ago, here in T&T, we are yet to operationalise a DNA databank.
Even more appalling is the fact that we are still sending samples to the United Kingdom and/or United States for analysis.
The most high-profile case in recent time which highlighted the use of DNA evidence and other ‘scientific’ methods in criminal investigations resulted in nine not guilty verdicts and two re-trials.
Lessons learnt? I hope so.
The FSC is overwhelmed. It lacks space, boasts very limited resources—both human and material—and is the source of a litany of complaints, most of which have fallen on deaf ears over the years. The conditions under which the professionals are expected to perform are totally unacceptable.
On any given day, there are some 12 bodies awaiting the attention of the Forensic Pathologist. Is it reasonable to expect a single pathologist in a small room to perform a thorough examination as well as to maintain the integrity of 12 bodies—particularly relative to the issue of cross contamination—during an eight-hour period?
Since the country has been grappling with firearm-related offences for about a decade at least, is it not reasonable to expect that sufficient attention and resources be given to this issue?
The opportunities to link firearms to crime scenes through DNA, fingerprints and other forms of comparative analysis do exist. In a recent Joint Select Committee hearing, the Committee Chairman appeared astonished—and rightfully so!—to learn that the FSC is equipped with IBIS, an Integrated Ballistic Identification System.
This system has been operational in Trinidad and Tobago for at least ten years. Given that over 70 percent of the homicides committed between 2005-2015 were gun-related and a significant number of firearms were recovered by TTPS during the same period, along with the intelligence that suggests that firearms are shared and/or rented by individuals and groups, it should be interesting to hear from some official source just how many, if any, firearms have been linked to different crimes by IBIS.
Though there can be no disputing that more resources need to be directed towards the forensic science area, it is my view that these particular stakeholders need to be held accountable for the resources they already enjoy.
Furthermore, I am convinced that if these two major stakeholders are properly reorganised and their efficiency maximised, the Criminal Justice System would make significant leaps and bounds in the direction of recovery.