THERE is a backlog of 7,000 ballistics cases in Trinidad and Tobago.
This climbing backlog is as a result of a shortage of ballistics examiners and lack of space which has resulted in delayed legal proceedings.
Last month, two arms of the Ministry of National Security—the National Forensic Science Centre (NFSC) and the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS)—collaborated to launch a training programme, entitled Firearm and Toolmark Examiner Training, at the Police Training Academy in St James.
The programme was billed as historic training aimed at increasing the cadre of firearm and toolmark examiners locally to speed up processing of evidence relating to firearms used in criminal activities, particularly ballistics material comparisons.
Its concept was the brainchild of acting director of the NFSC, Derrick Sankar.
Sankar has been a trained forensic ballistics professional for the past 25 years.
In an interview with the Sunday Express last Thursday, Sankar said the NFSC is an independent institution which he “jealously guards”.
“My intention is to train the TTPS officers. We conducted a head hunting exercise in the TTPS and realised that a lot of officers do courses in a bid to train and improve themselves,” he said.
The training initiative is the first of its kind in T&T and entails theoretical, progressive and practical course modules, evidence handling and examination, evidence evaluation, toolmark identification, firearm manufacture trends, ballistic projectile dynamics and report writing.
A firearms and toolmark examiner is a forensic scientist who is an expert in evidence regarding firearms, toolmarks and ballistics.
In addition to forensic examinations, firearms and toolmark examiners are called upon to test firearms and photograph firearms and firearms-related evidence and prepare investigative reports based upon their examinations.
Some of their responsibilities may include performing chemical and/or electrolytic etching and magnetic processes for firearms serial number restoration and determining the muzzle proximity and trajectory of firearms used at the scene of a crime.
Sankar said there are only three full-time examiners and one part-time examiner to handle the 7,000 outstanding cases.
“That is the reality,” he said. “We want to get people to do the work because firearms and ballistics is the only area that you have to be human-intensive, you cannot use an instrument to do the work.”
Sankar, who rose through the ranks from scientific officer at the NFSC, has appeared in hundreds of murder cases, several of them high-profile ones.
“The whole ethos of thinking of it was to improve the amount of firearm examiners we have. And that is why this was decided as a solution to the problem, to deal with the 7,000-backlog of cases, we decided to train more people.
“I engaged the TTPS, asked them to provide some of their staff. We took five people from Forensics and in total there were 26 persons to be trained in ballistics,” he disclosed.
Additionally, Sankar noted that a partnership was formed with the Police Academy so the course could be accredited.
The academy has affiliations with the Accreditation Council of T&T (ACTT), Sankar explained.
At the end of training, the examiners receive a postgraduate diploma in “Firearms and Toolmark Examination”.
“Under the Evidence Act, it is a post which exists under Legal Notice 175 of 2007. It is a post we can train them against, since under the Evidence Act they can be trained to be a firearm and toolmark examiner. This is being achieved as a result of them doing the programme now. We are a month into the programme, the training is intense, and the setting of exams in the ballistics remains ongoing,” he said.
Sankar said after the 26 people graduate, it is his intention that they “...stay at Forensics and do ballistic work. So the Forensic Science Centre will be the place for them to work”.
Saying he was thinking big with the concept of the course, Sankar said currently one examiner per year can do 100 cases.
“If you have three examiners, that’s 300. What we have now are three-and-a-half examiners when tallied... that is 350 cases. So if you divide 7,000 cases by 350 over 20 years to do the cases, it will only take you three years. Now, imagine how many cases will be examined with the additional 26,” he said.
“I have to look at the Forensic Science Centre and what we are going to do with these cases. We want these cases since it is justice on time, literally. People are charged and they are just sitting there on bail. We do not want forensics to be the cause of delay. I want to get this done and allow the courts to find guilt or innocence.
“From my point I want to see our cases get done and our DNA get done and the cases be brought to court for justice one way or the other... that is why I am training this batch. It is my way of giving back to the country,” he said.
Noting that a feasibility study was conducted, the merits of which will be beneficial to the country, Sankar said, “I am doing this for T&T. We do not have the space to accommodate a lot of people, but the new lab is being worked on really hard, the minister and permanent secretary are working really hard on getting this on track. The new lab will be six times the size of this one.
“If we train now, when that lab is eventually built, we will populate that with the staff, and will not have to look for staff since it will already be done. I am thinking strategically to get this done for the benefit of the people of T&T. Crime is what it is, and we need to have solutions.”
On the issue of certified police officers dealing with exhibits which may form evidence in police killings or are police-related, Sankar said, “All certified officers/examiners will be under our watch and we will be peer reviewing all their work before it goes out as quality standards and quality control.”