Uganda Police takes leap into scientific Investigations

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If there is an area where Uganda needs to run at an increasingly faster rate everyday, it is the development of scientific evidence gathering and analysis. This is because major crimes are today committed with the application of modern science. And so the police force has no choice but to not only keep pace with, but overtake and stay ahead of the criminals in acquiring and applying modern scientific knowledge.

 

If there is an area where Uganda needs to run at an increasingly faster rate everyday, it is the development of scientific evidence gathering and analysis. This is because major crimes are today committed with the application of modern science. And so the police force has no choice but to not only keep pace with, but overtake and stay ahead of the criminals in acquiring and applying modern scientific knowledge.

From bank fraud to cyber crime, drug trafficking to terrorism, murder for passion or money to wildlife poaching and smuggling, criminals are increasingly using modern science and Uganda Police has decided to acquire cutting edge skills and equipment to match so as to stay ahead of the game. It started with the creation of the Forensics directorate a few years back and taking it from under the roof of CID so it could run faster on its own.

A few pioneers were brought in by the police leadership to   kick off the reform, starting some four years back. The team was led by Lenny Mugalu, an experienced biochemist who after a teaching stint at Makerere University in the early eighties had led quality control for top pharmaceutical organisations like Boots (Kenya), worked as lead research chemist for the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology, had set up a state of the art pharmaceutical factory for the military production arm NEC as far back as 1988 and later rebuilt the Rwanda government pharmaceutical factory of Butera which had been bombed out and restored it to full production. Mugalu’s team started off with virtually nothing except a vision as they moved from Kibuli CID to an empty bushy plot that was allocated to them on Naguru hill.

By the time the decision to upgrade the forensics services was taken a few years back, what passed for scientific investigation at Kibuli constituted a small demoralized group with a couple of magnifying glasses and outdated photographic equipment. There was only one fingerprint expert and the country’s only single ballistics expert had died a few years earlier. And so for some time, police had even lost the capacity to match a bullet recovered from a shooting victim to the gun that fired it! It was under such conditions that the pioneers got to work a few years ago. They designed the new forensics centre using entirely police in-house capabilities and no external consultants. The structure was constructed and got occupied. The first official recognition for their efforts came from the entire East African region. After inspecting all the major forensics facilities in the region, experts from the regional forces and beyond gave their verdict – Uganda’s Naguru facility was best placed to become the East African Forensics Referral Centre – and the status was officially bestowed upon it. So the Naguru centre is now a regional asset and not just Uganda government facility.

For some years in the past, the limited facility which was atrophying under CID was sufficient at that time in history when the country’s population was small, crime rates low and the methods of commission not so sophisticated. But unfortunately, the period of neglect coincided with the population growth and the small ‘identification bureau’ with its demoralized staff simply could not keep pace.

Equipping the Forensics centre is an ongoing process. Police leadership is aware that scientific (Forensics) development is very expensive and you cannot have all the resources at a go to start off. What is most important is the vision and the plan. And the demands for resources are particularly high, expensive and keep changing. But above all, training Ugandan scientists in modern forensic investigation is a priority which has been embraced with zest. Today, UPF has several post graduate scientific investigators who have been trained in Europe, America and Asia in different disciplines though their details may not be given. Others from partner countries shall be joining the centre in future.

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Uganda Police to digitize 5,000,000 fingerprints

Over the past couple of years, visiting officials from more advanced security agencies in Europe, America and India have marveled at the impressive collection of suspects’ fingerprints at the Uganda Police Forensic laboratory – five million in total and still growing. But though impressed by the sheer size and meticulously kept registry, they were also alarmed at the manual depository which has been making retrieval and matching laborious, sometimes taking weeks.

But things are changing fast and now the process is being automated, which is just the first step toward making identification by the matching of fingerprints as efficient as anywhere else in the world. The aim in the near future is to digitize all the fingerprints and completely computerize the process so that identification through matching starts taking seconds down from weeks in some cases.

This will be a fitting tribute to Captain Young, the British military officer who in 1907 first set up the rudimentary identification bureau staring with a fingerprint section in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Ugandan colony. This was the country’s first step in building scientific evidence gathering and analytical capacity. Unfortunately its growth has not been as fast as would be desired. It even declined over the years and deliberate steps for revival and modernization started a few years back, already registering considerable progress.

The use of matching fingerprints in identification is one of the oldest scientific methods to tie a suspect to the scene of crime. Although more sophisticated methods have come up, fingerprinting remains the first line of in the identification process, because no two human beings can ever have similar finger prints. The five million fingerprints in Uganda Police registry have been collected from suspects since 1907 and obviously, thousands of their owners are already dead. But the vast majority have been picked in recent times and their owners are alive and presumably active. The Forensics personnel are now using an automated retrieval system that takes shorter than the old manual one of poring over prints using a magnifying glass like happens in a Sherlock Holmes script. However the digitization being implemented will make matching last a matter of seconds.

Scene of crime photography goes hi-tech

After the old CID photographic unit disintegrated due to neglect, there was no point revive it to its old state because it was already completely obsolete. At the time of creating the Forensics unit, digital photography had already replaced the old film based one. So an entirely new set up had to be created. Police now has a state of the art unit that captures all that is found at a crime scene and equipment to analyse it. With many officers trained in scene of crime management, reliable images are brought back to office for processing and management. Obviously, some crime scene images can now be transmitted digitally rather than physically from far away stations to head office for preliminary processing and analysis.

Crime scene management has also been modernized with better skills and equipment being used to gather evidence. The capacity to link digitally to crime scenes is being developed alongside the capacity for rapid analysis of feeds from CCTVs.

Dealing with document fraud

The problem of document fraud has been serious over the years, with perpetrators from all walks of life hiring skills of fraudsters mainly from universities around Kampala and down the printing hub in Nkrumah and Nasser roads to produce fake cheques, land title deeds, currency, academic certificates, identity cards, licenses and official receipts. Experts in tackling document fraud have been trained and continue to be trained, with modern equipment acquired for the purpose.  

Cyber crime

Close to fraud is cyber crime, whose perpetrators use their computing skills to steal. They usually hack into systems to issue illegal commands that result in the movement of funds. Victims include organisations with large accounts and complex operations. The onset of mobile money transfers has seen service providers lose billion to fraudsters. But even individuals are not spared and many have lost their small money to crooks who use cyber tricks to con them.

But cyber crime is also closely linked to terrorism, as terrorists use modern mobile and internet based communication to plan and execute their attacks. Uganda Police forensics is developing capacity to tackle this and is already in constant cyber wars with the criminals. UPF is has put certain communication networks out of action and has already developed the capacity to retrieve any signals that have been communicated through mobile gadgets even after they have deleted, switched off and destroyed. Mobile phones fished from down put latrines where criminals threw them after coordinating their acts have had all their old communications retrieved by the unit …

Banking fraud

Banks have for long been targeted by fraudsters, who often connive with bank insiders but sometimes act alone. The fraudsters use accounting skills, computer expertise and document forgeries to steal billions. Usually the victim banks want the crime kept under wraps in order not to undermine public confidence in their institutions, but then pass the loss as a cost to innocent customers who face higher charges for the banking services. Several top Kampala tycoons and politicians have been implicated in bank fraud, and some victim banks have even on occasions obstructed investigations. The unit is developing its capabilities for dealing with such fraud in the face of sometimes non-cooperative victims.  

Drugs

Dealing and consumption of narcotic is on the rise in Uganda. Not only is the country a growing transit centre partly because of its weak laws, there is a growing market here of both local and foreign consumers. Besides the ‘traditional’ marijhuana and cocaine, there are new offshoots coming up these days which have devastating effects on their users. The Forensics police has to rapidly keep updating it capacity to identify these drugs and detect them in the different forms of solvents they are hidden in for consumption. The symptoms and actual effects on the users and victims need to be identified and confirmed in time.

Toxicology

The police forensics unit has to keep pace and ahead of the science of poisoning. Traditional and foreign poisoning arts are on the increase and police needs to develop the capacity to pinpoint the poison agents in seemingly natural or accidental deaths. Poisoning has in recent years been used not only to kill people over different motives but also to eliminate key witnesses who would have helped pin murderers in court.

Terrorism

The biggest threat to world peace today is terrorism, and fighting it draws a lot on scientific knowledge. Besides traditional ballistics and explosives, terrorists now try to use many different materials to cause death. Even the explosives they use are now made of different materials. Police is developing the scientific capacity to identify these before and after attacks, so as to build capacity to prevent future attacks. Terrorists and arsonists are using different material to cause explosions and to accelerate fires.

DNA

UPF has taken its investigative capabilities to the world required level by establishing a DNA unit within the Forensic directorate. Several scientists have undergone advanced training in the field and others are still studying abroad. Equipment acquisition is ongoing. DNA investigation is the most accurate and virtually irrefutable way to tying suspects to scenes of crime and contact with victims

The Vision

Now that the Uganda Police Forensic Unit has been upgraded to the Regional Forensic Referral Centre, there is no choice but to develop it to be at per with the best scientific investigative centres in the world. Plans have been drawn to develop it to a training complex to help build scientific investigative capacity all over Africa, and experts from relevant security agencies and universities of more developed countries have been on the ground at Naguru to assess what role they can play in making the urgent plan a reality. But the phase of constructing the forensics academy will involve taking away the ballistics unit to grow on its won at a different location, the way the Forensics unit itself had to move out of CID in order to grow.

UPF leadership recognizes that this is gong to be a very expensive venture but there is no choice because of the speed at which criminals are using science. Either we do it or someone will do it for us by putting their agendas on top of the ‘assistance’ package. So the UPF leadership has decided to take the bull by the horns, start off the centre as resources are being mobilized for its development.

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