NATIONAL security minister Peter Bunting has said that he is actively exploring measures to make operations at the Government Forensic Science Laboratory in St Andrew more efficient.
Reeling from a shortage of staff, cramped operating spaces, and heavy backlogs, Judith Mowatt, head of the institution, last week called for more Government support, and Bunting said that he has already started looking at ways to alleviate the long-standing concerns.
"The suggestion is to look at making the lab an executive agency, which would make it fall under the ministry; and, in a sense, move it outside the police force. These are some of the options that we are exploring at this time," said Bunting during a handing-over ceremony Thursday marking the grant of more than $18 million worth of equipment from the United States government to the facility.
"It is very preliminary but that is one of the things we may have to look at to allow more flexibility in offering services across the region, earning additional income; and, in that way, be able to expand their (laboratory])staff to improve the turnaround time," said the minister.
Bunting's comments followed recent criticisms by sections of the media regarding the laboratory's operation, and the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM) — the body set up last August to probe the abuse of citizens' rights by members of the security forces.
If the Forensic Science Laboratory, which is responsible for scientifically investigating various criminal offences, is made into an executive body, it would mean that members of the public would be able to pay to have certain examinations conducted or expedited. The institution would be able to generate its own income.
"When you become an executive service it means that you can now offer services to the public at a cost. It doesn't mean that for criminal cases people are going to have to pay," Gillian Haughton, communications and public affairs director at the ministry, said.
"It means that persons who would go to other private labs to do tests, for example DNA tests and so forth, could do it here. But it would still be the Government Forensic Lab for criminal investigations," she added.
The move, Bunting said, would be a more effective way in addressing Mowatt's demand for more work posts, which he said government would not be eager to facilitate in light of International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreements and other fiscal obligations.
In addition, he said, funds generated from the laboratory's operation could go towards the expansion of the laboratory spaces. The move could also be of benefit to INDECOM investigators who also use the facility, he said.
Last November, INDECOM, in its first report tabled to Parliament, stated that government gives the commission budgetary allocations to use private local and overseas laboratories in an effort to minimise heavy delays at the national laboratory. This is worth looking into, Bunting said.
"If we were to go that route it would remove any potential conflict for INDECOM using the lab. Because there is a potential conflict now. INDECOM will be investigating primarily policemen and women, and for the lab that is providing an important service to their investigation to be within the police department may seem to set up potential conflicts," he argued.
"So if we look at exploring that alternative, to make the lab an executive agency, that is one of the conflicts that would be removed in the new arrangement," Bunting said.
According to INDECOM's report, Jamaica's arrangements for investigations into the use of force by State agents continue to be plagued by delay, inertia and lack of adequate resources.
The commission said that some cases had been delayed for up to two years, noting that at the time the Bureau of Special Investigations (BSI) had a total of 279 cases still awaiting forensic examinations. It was not immediately clear how many of those cases have since been dealt with, however, one scientist on Thursday cited the lack of adequate staffing as one of the main reasons only 496 of the 1125 homicides reported last year have been cleared up.
Mowatt, who on Thursday received four microscopes, one of two universal comparison macro scopes, and staff training from the US, ruled out lack of technological resources as an issue at the facility. She said that staff shortage and inadequate infrastructure was more of the problem.
"The establishment that we are currently using has been in use for more than a decade. The rate of crime however has not remained static. So it is a challenge for the amount of staff I have to keep up with the work area," said Mowatt. "When we moved into this building in December 1990, for example, the biology department received a total of 600 cases. Last year that same department received 4,249 cases and almost 20,000 exhibits, and I have the same amount of staff," she lamented, noting that only three new employees have joined her team in more than 12 years.
"We also have a space issue and we are seeking to address that. So hopefully by the end of 2012 that issue will be addressed permanently," she said, noting that an influx of new equipment in recent years had allowed the laboratory "to do things better, faster, and more accurately".
Mowatt, citing security reasons, declined to state the number of staff members she has working presently and how many more persons would be required to bolster the laboratory's efficiency.
Her plight was, however, corroborated by a senior scientist in the biology department who told the Sunday Observer that "there was simply nowhere to put" additional employees.
"We don't have the staff but we also don't have anywhere to put new ones. We would have to extend the building," said the woman, who said that she had been working at the facility for about a decade.
With a staff of around 12, the department is grossly understaffed noted the employee, as she probed a dirty, semen stained underwear belonging to 13-year-old rape victim for clues — one of about a dozen specimens she deals with on a daily basis.
Police Commissioner Owen Ellington, who also attended the handing-over ceremony, said that he was satisfied with the laboratory's capabilities to probe heinous crimes despite the lengthy delays.
"I am very impressed with the quality of work and the commitment that they have in supporting investigations. I appreciate that because of the volume of work there will be delays but what you have observed today is the kind of effort needed in building the capacity so that they can do much more work in less time," he said. "So this is actually responding to the problems that we have observed as to the limitations in capacity," he added.