Forensic lab to help police fight crime

18 July 2012

The launch of a state-of-the-art forensic laboratory in Cape Town will help South African police to fight crime more smartly, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said at the official launch of the R500-million Plattekloof Laboratory on Tuesday.

“Working smart means that we are going to succeed in ensuring convictions,” Mthethwa said.

The laboratory has been operating since November last year and focuses on DNA analysis, identifying drugs, causes of fires, polygraphs, analysis of gun shot residue, handwriting analysis, blood-stain analysis and 3D facial recognition.

It serves the Western Cape and several districts in the Northern Cape and Eastern Cape, and replaces the old forensics centre which was being leased in Delft.

It is also one of only four forensic laboratories in the country – with the others in Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and Durban.

The state-of-the-art centre includes a system of rails running the length and breadth of the building (running about 800m in length) and 50 boxes in which collected evidence is then channelled from nine kiosks to the correct department for investigation.

The system, which is used in European forensic centres, will go some way in resolving the problem of evidence being misplaced or tampered with, as the boxes can also be tracked using a biometric system – which is also used to open the boxes.

Combating violence against women and children

Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega said the laboratory would play an important role in combating violence against women and children involving substance abuse.

Figures from 2011/12 showed that of total cases received in the biology section alone – more than 50% were related to rape and murder cases.

The police would continue to increase capacity in the critical area of forensic services, she said, and added that this had been identified as a key area in fighting crime.

This would be complemented by the setting up of a DNA database following the envisaged passing of the DNA Bill, which is currently in Parliament. A number of other countries have similar legislation in place, including Brazil, which in May enacted DNA database legislation into law.

She also planned to bring the various roleplayers together to find ways to expedite the reporting processes to improve the criminal justice system.

Progress in reducing backlogs

Head of forensics services, Lieutenant-General Julius Phahlane, said the division achieved a criminal conviction rate of 94% in 2011/12 – up from 63% in 2009/10.

Although just 77% of evidence was processed within 28 days – against a target of 92% – the number of cases lodged at forensic laboratories that were older than 28 days old were reduced by 30% in 2010/11, following a 60% decline in backlogs between 2009/10 and 2010/11.

The backlog in processing evidence also came down – from 59 023 on 1 April 2009 to 11 310 on 1 April this year.

Phahlane said that 800 more staff would be employed in the four laboratories around the country this year, in addition to the 6 930 staff that were already employed in the division, in order to further reduce backlogs.

Detective and forensic training courses that the police are currently running would also help strengthen the forensics division.

Hi-tech equipment such as a R1.5-million camera which can take panoramic shots necessary to accurately record the scene of a crime are also necessary to strengthen the forensics division. Phahlane said such equipment was necessary if the police were to outsmart criminals.