Forensics laboratory

Fighting crime in any country in the world is an ongoing battle for control and dominance – first by the criminals seeking to get away with actions that harm the society as a whole, and then, the society fighting back through the criminal justice system, in an attempt to curb the criminality, and to capture and punish the perpetrators as a form of redress for the victims and society, and as a deterrent to others.

Most countries in the world have over the years developed a systematic approach to fighting crime, and have been relying to a greater or lesser degree on science and technology in their criminal investigations to try and ensure the real perpetrators are captured and punished. This is not to say that some crimes do not remain unsolved, or that sometimes innocent persons are not -wrongly implicated in the commission of a crime. The point is simply that scientific methods increase the likelihood of successful prosecutions.

In the early 1930s, universities around the world began offering courses and degrees in criminology and police science, but the actual use of forensic science dates back to the 700s where the Chinese used fingerprints to establish identities. Since then, the 1800s and 1900s have been replete with the use of innovative scientific and social methodologies in the solving of crime. In the 1980s DNA was introduced as a significant marker in determining the presence of an individual at the scene of a crime, and so transformative was this methodology to the criminal justice system as a whole, that DNA labs had to pass through a rigorous process of standardization, accreditation, and quality control monitoring, since laboratory mistakes could cause untold suffering if an innocent person was wrongly implicated.

Any current assessment of the forensic capabilities of the Guyana Police Force (GPF) would, most likely, return a less than inspiring report, which means that the GPF is still not using the available scientific and social science methodologies in its fight against crime in Guyana. The Guyana Forensic Science Laboratory (GFSL) which was set up in 2014 at a cost of $1billion, has, to date, not yet received ISO certification, and some structural issues with the building have earlier been cited as contributing to the delay.

In February 2018, the Project Manager of the Citizens Security Strengthening Programme (CSSP), Mr Clement Henry promised that ISO Certification of the GFSL will happen “soon.” He noted that, “two critical pieces of equipment were necessary to achieve this goal; DNA and gunshot residue testing equipment.”

This brings us to March 2018, and GFSL Director, Mr Delon France, informing the media that the DNA testing equipment “is currently being procured and I expect it to be in Guyana shortly.” December 2018 has been set as the implementation date by which the laboratory will be able to successfully commence DNA testing.

The change in political administration that occurred between 2014 and 2015, notwithstanding, it seems that a billion dollar initiative such as the GFSL, should have been more completely conceptualised and implemented, so as to be up and running by now, including full ISO certification. So far, ad-hoc fixes seem to have been the order of the day, and we now have to wait until December to see if the promised DNA testing facility will be fully functional within a certified and accredited laboratory. ISO accreditation requirements involve, among other things, assessments of competence, conformity to standards and the existence of a well-documented management system. The reputation of the forensics lab would be compromised if it came on stream and did work on a non-accredited basis.

We should not think that simply having a forensics laboratory with the requisite equipment and the requisite human skills will automatically produce accurate and trustworthy results. Unless the lab itself is subjected to periodic conformity assessments by an accredited body, it may not be too long before the malaise of apathetic non-adherence to standards, seemingly endemic to Guyana sets in, wherein innocent lives can be affected.

Just this March, the Newsday newspapers of Trinidad and Tobago carried an article headlined, “Families call Forensic Sciences Centre a ‘national disgrace.’” This article shows that such a facility, which has become a key ingredient in delivering justice to crime victims and their families, can find itself open to the harsh scrutiny of a public desperate for justice and closure. In this context, continuous high efficiency delivery of services is the only way an accredited laboratory can fulfil its mandate.

There have been several positive developments in the GPF over the years, but there is still a far way to go to ensure a delivery of justice that is not severely skewed in favour of the rich and powerful. The limited to non-existent capacity of the GPF to effectively handle white collar crimes has not yet been addressed, and this in itself can fuel an increase in blue collar crimes. In so far as the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, the government appears to be in the process of acquiring new parts for the GPF, but it also needs to badly repair some of the existing ones. With crime and corruption being at the high levels that exist currently, long term succession planning and strategic human resource interventions are needed in the GPF. Young persons must be identified for academic training in criminology, forensics and criminal justice to be the future leaders of a revamped and revitalised GPF.

Otherwise, ongoing innovations such as the GFSL may turn out to be no more effective than putting new rims on an old, broken-down motor car.

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