Exclusive: Inside the SAPS’ Forensics Lab
Cape Town - The Western Cape has one of the most advanced police forensic laboratories in the country, purpose-built and designed with the utmost security and fidelity principles in mind.
How advanced? The facility in Plattekloof, is about 28 000m² of floor space housing about 500 staff members - two-thirds of whom are forensic scientists - working in laboratories containing pieces of equipment valued at up to R4 million, each capable of accurately analysing evidence, be it DNA, bullet casings and cartridges, documents, signatures or drugs and alcohol.
The Police Forensic Laboratory was built at an estimated cost of R600m and doesn’t fit the mould of traditional government buildings, which are often retrofitted to suit the purpose of the departments they house.
Brigadier Deon Meintjes, who runs the facility, explains that the lab was built by the Department of Public Works to the unit’s requirements and was designed without too much external input or influence from other labs around the world.
“We designed and built it to suit our needs.
“You’ll notice all of the various departments have the same kind of layout; the offices are situated around the outskirts of a central core - the labs. This is so that all of the fitments run centrally, from the Nederman arms (adjustable ventilation ducts to keep harmful or toxic fumes away from lab technicians), to the water and gas pipes and the rail cart system.”
The rail cart system is a complex array of pneumatically powered roof-mounted tracks which transport evidence directly to the laboratory and technician where it needs to be, in secure, biometrically lockable safeboxes. This is to ensure there is a traceable “chain of custody” to safeguard against contamination, tampering or theft.
Security is tight.
“You can barely make it around a few corners without being stopped if you’re unaccompanied,” Meintjes says. Staff from various units are unable to access certain areas, particularly where their skills are not needed.
Access is strictly controlled within the building, with between 600 and 700 HD CCTV cameras, and about 900 biometric access points. Very few people have universal access, and Meintjes is one of them.
“It’s to safeguard the evidence.”
In the Chemistry lab boardroom is a 10kg bag of tik ready to be destroyed. It’s worth around R3m. On a gurney beside the boardroom table are 10 10kg bags of mandrax tablets, valued at about R4m per bag. Tight security is crucial.
The Forensic Laboratory was commissioned in November 2011 and officially opened in July 2012, Meintjes says, but not before much public outcry by Plattekloof residents, who envisioned a facility where police and ambulance sirens would wail in the wee hours, or trails of blood would be left in the street.
“The samples are collected in pathology labs or in the hospitals. The evidence we receive comes in sealed bags and there’s a complicated handover process involving signatures and fingerprints and clearance. This is all to ensure we can trace the chain of custody. We can track where the evidence is at any given time,” Meintjes says.
He remembers the public participation process before the facility was built and police management had to allay the residents’ fears.
The building matches the surrounding architecture, built in a sweeping arc with two wings leading off on either side. It’s green, too, in line with a Public Works mandate and features photovoltaic panels on the roof, a grey water system for irrigation and sewage, intelligent lighting throughout the building - even in the labyrinthine service stairwells - intelligent air-conditioning and uses recycled materials as far as possible, particularly in the insulation and soundproofing.
All the facility’s staff are members of the police.
The training and education that cannot be obtained in other institutions is provided in-house.
“You can’t get ballistics training anywhere,” Meintjes says. “You can’t go to university and study ballistics. You need to have a scientific or biology background to work here, but you can’t study this stuff.
“So, we provide the training in-house. It consists of, in most cases, a three-year learnership programme with mentorship and regular competency tests. Even long after you’ve qualified, there are competency tests, and when you’re done with that programme, depending on the discipline, there’s another three- to six-month mentorship programme before you can work independently. And still, we test your competency after that regularly. Only then can you be called a ballistics expert.”
Meintjes jokes about what’s referred to as “The CSI Effect”. “These shows have made working in forensic science more attractive and popular. Some of the shows are realistic, but it’s not like in the shows where you put some evidence in and a few hours later you have a result.
“Forensics is such a broad thing. Sometimes, you’ll hear people say, or journalists like yourselves write there was a delay because of forensics. Forensics simply implies that it is for use in court. You get forensic science, forensic pathology, forensic auditing, forensic chemistry... it’s all forensics. So you can’t just say we’re waiting for forensics, because what are you actually saying? There’s no delay, it simply takes that long to process the evidence.
“Add to this the volume of work we have at any given time and now you have to consider and factor that in too. These things take time.
“If I ask you to make a cup of coffee, how long will that take you? Ten minutes? Fine, so how long does it take for you to make, say, a thousand cups of coffee? You can’t just multiply those 10 minutes by 1 000, you need to think about how am I going to manage this workload? You start maybe setting out 100 saucers at a time, 100 cups and so on. You need to tackle this task, but at the end of the day I can’t say there is a delay in you making a 1 000 cups of coffee. It simply takes that long to make a 1 000 cups of coffee.
“We have targets, we have turnaround targets, but we can’t rush the work either. Average times - and again, this varies because tomorrow I get a few kilograms of evidence I need to process and that changes things - but our average times aren’t bad. Remember, our teams are producing literally thousands of reports to be used in courts as prima facie evidence every month.”
The Plattekloof facility takes care of all forensics work for the Western Cape and Northern Cape and handles some competencies for the Eastern Cape, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal. It’s the second biggest facility in the country. There are four laboratory complexes around the country, with the biggest in Pretoria - which has a full array of services - and two others in Amanzimtoti, KZN and Port Elizabeth.
While the Cape Town facility doesn’t have the full array of services such as the Pretoria complex, it comes pretty close.
“We handle about two-thirds of the DNA sampling.”
To process a single cartridge takes about a week, according to Meintjes’s fourth quarter report for the 2015/16 financial year. But that’s if his ballistics lab only has one cartridge to deal with.
“We break the work up into three categories: routine work is simple processing. We get the evidence - if it’s a gun, a cartridge, a victim, a suspect - and we process the evidence.
“Non-routine work needs some research. Here we have missing variables or there is some further investigation or research to be done. And then there’s the third category: intelligence work. This one is important because you get the evidence and now you have to piece together pieces of a puzzle. You process, but you have to keep it on record, because while there may be a case, there might not be a suspect, or a victim. You’re gathering intelligence for future reference.
“Most of our work is to present to the court. But sometimes the matter hasn’t yet come before the court, but we still have to do the intelligence gathering.”
The average ballistics turnaround time in the reporting period Meintjes showed the Cape Argus was between 13 and 15 days. “But that can change tomorrow.”
For the biology lab, which processes DNA, the average turnaround time for DNA analysis is between 29 and 60 days.
For the chemistry lab, which tests drugs and alcohol, the turnaround is between 30 and 50 days.
For documents analysis, which includes forgery and handwriting analysis, the average time is seven days, while image analysis takes about 20 days.
The science behind this analysis will be explored this week by the Cape Argus as we get an exclusive first look at the inner workings of the lab complex.
In the documents laboratory, Meintjes said: “You asked me earlier in my office what kind of person works here. Do you have an answer?”
“The coolest kind,” was the Cape Argus’ response.