Friday, October 04, 2013

Shelve the Forensics Lab Idea for now.

A laboratory for the National Police Service to examine and analyse forensic and other evidence collected during the investigation of crimes is a vital tool in such investigations. Since the hideous plot to steal from Kenyans via secret national security appropriations was uncovered in the Anglo-Leasing Scandal, the so-called forensics laboratory has been hanging fire. The question of a forensics lab has become live after the Westgate Attack, because of the images of foreign forensics experts collecting evidence at the ill-fated shopping mall.

The public in general, however, must be educated as to what goes into a successful forensics lab. Not just the technical aspects of equipment and personnel, but also the educational long-term planning necessary to make the laboratory an effective crime-fighting, or crime-prevention, tool. Many think that a forensics lab will mirror what they see on successful US TV shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigations, Bones, or NCIS. The reality is rather different. The reality is rather humdrum.

Certain questions require attention before the process of procuring a forensics lab is restarted. The most important is whether indeed Kenya needs a criminal investigations laboratory in the first place. The work that would take place in the lab would be highly technical and would call on the services of experienced scientists with the capability of collecting forensics material, storing it, analysing it and interpreting it correctly. To the best of my knowledge, the National Police Service is yet to start paying for its officers to be trained in DNA collection, testing or analysis; blood-spatter analysis; ballistics analysis; or even finger-print analysis. And if one has been keeping pace with the challenges the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigations has been facing regarding the relatively simple matter of finger-print analysis, one would understand why Kenya is at least a scientific generation away from setting up and credibly running a forensics laboratory.

For the foreseeable future, and with the long term plan if building criminalistics capacity in Kenya, the best the Criminal Investigations Department can do is to rely in the Office of the Chief Government Chemist. While this department has come in for a lot of flack for the way it has been mishandled by the politicians in charge of internal security, its work has the capacity of being both credible and professional. The department employs qualified technical officers. It has the necessary basic equipment to perform certain forensics examinations. And hand in hand with the Office of the Chief Government Pathologist, the forensic needs of the National Police Service are taken care of.

What we do not want to admit, and in the light of the inquiry of the deaths of George Saitoti and Orwa Ojode, is the fact that the Government Chemist and the Chief Pathologist have had their offices manipulated by politicians, not to uncover the truth, but to avoid embarassment. Therefore, the idea that a forensics lab will solve the political management problems of serious crimes is a fallacy at best. The lab is being promoted as part of the CID; the recent appointment of the Director of Criminal Investigations revealed the politcal interest in the occupant of that post. The same political interest will interfere in the operations of the forensics lab, if it ever built.

The other thing that we must admit is that Kenya has a history of white elephants that have cost the people dearly. The biggest, surely, were the Turkwell Gorge dam, the Eldoret airport, the Nyayo Car Project and the concessioning of the Uganda Railway to Sheltam Corporation. There is no reason to believe that once funding is approved for the forensics lab, it will not be delivered on time nor on budget and it will consistently fail to deliver value for money. It might be embarassing to rely on the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Israel for the forensics investigations into the Westgate attack, but it is cheaper than spending billions we do not have on a facility we wont use.

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