A visit to forensic crime laboratories in Tennessee, USA.

Last month, one of our Director’s, Carolyn Hancock, was lucky enough to be able to visit two crime laboratories whilst spending time in Nashville, Tennessee. The first was the Nashville Metro Police Department Crime laboratory which is due to be opened shortly, and the second was the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Read more about Carolyn’s visit below:

Coming from South Africa and being part of the DNA Project, my visit to these two crime labs were of huge interest to me and I started my day with great anticipation – and was not disappointed! As many of you who follow this Blog will know, whilst South Africa has some of the best forensic technology in the world, we also have the highest rate of sexual assault and the second highest murder rate in the world. In addition, we are still waiting for the final enactment of the DNA Bill which will ensure that all those arrested or convicted of murder and sexual assault amongst other crimes, will have their DNA taken and kept on a database so as to improve our conviction rates and to identify serial offenders. As figures are also “my thing” I looked up some statistics which would be relevant to my visit, these being the incidence of certain crimes which have been reported during the last year in the State of Tennessee as opposed to KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), the province in which I live… Bearing in mind I have taken these figures from various sources on the Internet and that they may not be entirely accurate, they do provide a glimpse into the difference in our two societies.

If one works out what the crime rates are per 100 000 people to better compare the figures the murder rate in KZN is 5 ½ times higher and the rate of sexual assault 1 ½ times higher. The bottom line is, yes, our rate of serious offences is substantially higher and we have less forensic resources at our disposal. The sexual assault figure in particular is misleading and I think needs some clarification…. The reported figures I used represent the 1 in 9 cases of sexual assault which are actually reported and where there is approximately a 14% conviction rate. In other words the situation is far worse than the figures suggest. In reality the level of sexual offences committed in KZN is probably at least 12 times higher than that of Tennessee. When looking at how children are affected I found that last year 800 children were murdered in KZN alone and that 41% of sexual assaults involve children – reports suggest that every 3 minutes a child is raped in South Africa, and that the conviction rate for child rape is a minuscule 3%!!! The bottom line is we HAVE to start using DNA more efficiently in South Africa to address these very real, and senseless acts of severe violence.
Criminal acts occur everywhere and Tennessee is no exception, but they are actively working to address crimes of all types – even at the level of the Nashville Metro Police Department. Here they are building a state-of-the-art forensic laboratory that will include drug ID, firearms, DNA, latent prints and toxicology – all under one roof. I was thrilled to be shown around their laboratory that is still under construction by Damian Huggins the Deputy Chief of the Investigative Services Bureau as well as Tabitha Bullock who will head up the DNA unit. It was a fascinating morning where I could not help but wish that even some of our police stations could guarantee that forensic experts would not only timeously collect evidence at crime scenes but also have a local facility where it would be comprehensively analysed.

From there it was on to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) where Ed Jones the Deputy Director, and Chuck Hardy the DNA Grants Project Leader met us. Wow…. not only is the building impressive but I was immediately struck by their mission statement: “That Guilt Shall Not Escape Nor Innocence Suffer”. I was warmly welcomed and the afternoon started off with my being able to share with all the forensic analysts a little of the situation in South Africa along with what The DNA Project is doing in an attempt to constructively address our unacceptably high levels of crime. Thereafter I embarked on another amazing tour – this time of the working laboratories. Once again, all the forensic disciplines are contained in one building to facilitate the analysis of all types of evidence. The set up is similar to that which South Africa has just opened in Plattekloof in the Western Cape – a model that I hope will be duplicated in other Provinces.  Two experiences were of particular interest to me; the first was being able to enter an enormous room where a double decker bus can fit…. This is so that analysts can comprehensively search the vehicle for any forensic clues which may indicate the source of the crime committed. The second was spending time with Chuck Hardy and the analysts in the DNA section. Chuck has actually recently visited South Africa for a conference but spent a mere 24 hours here!!! I really enjoyed seeing and talking about the equipment and methodology they employ as well as discussing the collection kits used by TBI to obtain samples from both convicted offenders and arrestees – all the profiles of which are of course stored on their CODIS Database. The “Database’ being contained in a particularly innocuous looking hard drive ……

And so, I would like to sincerely thank everyone who shared their time and knowledge with me for a truly inspiring day – one that I will always remember and appreciate. I return to South Africa more determined than ever that we CAN and WILL make our beautiful country a safer place for us all.


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