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Beyond the hype: T&T police need proper forensics, not rocket science

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.

Photo: A forensic scientist at work. (Courtesy edynamiclearning.com)
Photo: A forensic scientist at work.
(Courtesy edynamiclearning.com)

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.

Photo: Forensic scientists collect data at a crime scene.
Photo: Forensic scientists collect data at a crime scene.

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.

Photo: TV6 crime show, Beyond The Tape. (Courtesy TV6)
Photo: TV6 crime show, Beyond The Tape.
(Courtesy TV6)

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.

Photo: Forensic scientists gather DNA samples. (Copyright Daily Telegraph)
Photo: Forensic scientists gather DNA samples.
(Copyright Daily Telegraph)

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?

Photo: Pathologist Dr Valery Alexandrov heads to work at a local cemetery. (Copyright Kaiteurnewsonline)
Photo: Pathologist Dr Valery Alexandrov heads to work at a local cemetery.
(Copyright Kaiteurnewsonline)

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.

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 in 2015. (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 in 2015.
(Courtesy US Embassy)

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.

AboutThane J Pierre

Thane J Pierre
Thane J Pierre is an Attorney at Law with extensive experience in forensics and law enforcement.

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21 comments

  1. All very valid points. I’ve been saying for some time that until a scientific approach is adopted to fighting crime in Trinidad, it will continue to spiral out of control. At the moment, Trinidad is probably about 15-20 years behind, in terms of scientifically approaching crime fighting.

  2. I recently looked at an episode of Quincy M.E. (a show which ran from 1976 to 1983) and as his assistant Sam came in, I wondered we’re in 2016 and if our version Dr. Alexandrov has a ‘Sam’?

  3. Wait… What are our goals again? I’m not being cheeky there. I’m just not sure. Anthony Morgan Beach?

  4. The forensic sciences centre has been understaffed for so long that one can only hope that with the impending adjustments to GATE, the government considers developing the human resources capacity in this field to be in alignment with the country’s development goals.

  5. Embau Amenemhat Moheni, do you have insight on the issues at the Forensic Centre from your time at the Ministry of National Security?

  6. Great article and it gets straight to the point. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Lets hope by GOD’S grace someone with decision making capabilities reads this and make the necessary changes for the better of sweet TnT.

  7. Would you venture a guess as to why the Ministry of National Security has not devoted more resources to the forensics centre, Thane Pierre?

    • Lasana Liburd your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps the decision makers have never been properly educated/lobbied on this critical issue.

      • Sad to say that our problem is not for lack of education but lack of will. Tax payers dollars fund Master’s programs in Crime Fighting courses for all the Senior Supes’ go up…Lower ranked officers are sent on programs all over the world (also local programs) on courses yet the country reaps no benefit..The get participation certificates and there is zero implementation.

    • I find that hard to believe. Surely Stephen Williams would know better. Or the pathologist would have explained to him.
      Or they would have learnt from our issues in court over the years…
      Things like this make me wonder if the goal is actually to improve crime fighting at all.

      • Why on earth would they want to disturb the status quo? Then they will have to actually work.

        I recently spoke to a senior police officer who gave the real reason Gibbs and Ewatski had to go…

        Gibbs and Ewatski implemented a tracking system for police, where HQ could monitor movement of cars and personnel. They also set targets and once a ‘hotspot’ area was identified and the police there met targets, they were moved and other officers sent in to raise their low-rank target profiles. So, the effect was that officers had to constantly keep moving, on the go, and on the job, 4 days on (12 hours shift) and 4 days off (court dates aside). No one could stay in air conditioned cars and offices to sleep – G+E had moved all the beds out of the dorms and police stations.

        This proved to be too much work, so the union plus the senior officers banded together, forced the Canadian duo out, and returned to ‘officers doing their own thing’.

        That entrenched laziness and corruption results in a 4% detection rate for serious crime. Can you think of ANY country in the world with a detection rate that low and heads not rolling? In some cases, heads might literally roll!

        6 months training is not enough to be an effective police officer. I propose that police recruits have a 3 years training program, the first two of which concentrates on law (similar to a lawyer-in-training) especially criminal law. The final year could be a mixture of forensics and criminology, with physical training throughout the 3 years. This is better suited for the job than 5 ‘O’ level subjects, and a bad attitude. The stereotype presented by Inspector Alexander should be a thing of the past.

        I have little hopes that progress will be made. I’ve been waiting 40 plus years in vain.

    • Earl Best

      My guess would be that the people most often affected by the oversight are typically closer to the profile of the PNM voter. Cynical? Maybe. But the neglect problem has persisted for so long that it defies, I think, logical explanation.

    • maybe so…then there is the issue of policy creating and implementation. I imagine this will be very challenging without the right people involved.

    • Smh. Thanks for showing us what should be happening if they are serious about fixing this problem.

    • There is a disconnect as to what ought to be done and what is actually done. If we don’t get the basics right. We won’t get the running of a forensic centre right. You would be surprised as to what passes from crime strategies for TTPS….And it shows in our murder statistics

  8. This area of T&T crime solving needs serious attention. Key points were mentioned in this article and should not be disregarded. Critical point is the first responders’ responsibility of quickly and effectively identifying & securing the crime scene, clearly not seen on the two crime programs on TV. A key area is the proper storing of collected evidence/forensics for the sake of solving cold cases. How are the evidence stored… Hard forensics and perishable forensics? Is there a secured database that at some point in the near future will be inter-linked to foreign crime databases? At least, someone is paying attention and asking questions.

  9. Interesting article that hit some of the nails needed to strengthen the criminal justice system.

  10. We don’t do crime solving, we only do crime investigating.