Investigating the investigator

Shahidul Alam | Published: 00:00, Oct 15,2019 | Updated: 00:46, Oct 15,2019


Bangladesh police gathering evidence at crime scene. — Jamuna TV

THE words were good to hear. The Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit Chief Monirul Islam talked of the skill, efficiency and professionalism of his team. Of how they had managed to solve crimes when there was virtually no evidence. Of how the culprit would be caught no matter ‘how influential’ and whoever the perpetrators may be.

The impunity of people close to the ruling party is no secret to Bangladeshis. You could not otherwise have permanent torture cells in a university campus. Those who murdered Biswajit Das in broad daylight in 2012, could not still openly attend parties in Dhaka while the police continue to insist they have no clue about their whereabouts. That the law is selectively applied, and justice selectively meted out, is something we have come to expect, but it was what appears to be an attempt to destroy evidence, by the police themselves, that I found most disquieting. The same accusations were made after the murder of the journalist couple, Sagar and Runi. It seems to have had little effect.

Having studied forensic methods for my exhibition ‘Searching for Kalpana Chakma’ and having visited the DNA testing labs of Warwick University, I was familiar with the methods used by investigators. What I saw on the news (Jamuna TV, 9th October 2019) appeared to be horrendous incompetence at best, and a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence at worst. Should we accept that taxpayers money is being wasted on useless government employees who have no clue of investigation techniques, or should we doubt Monirul Islam’s claim that ‘no matter how influential the accused, they will face whatever they are due, on the basis of neutrality and objectivity and on the basis of proof.’ Neither choice is comforting to citizens hungry for justice.

Dr. Edmond Locard was a pioneer in forensic science who became known as the Sherlock Holmes of France. The Locard Exchange Principle, is the standard that all forensic professionals refer to. Simply stated the principle says ‘no matter where a criminal goes or what a criminal does, he [sic] will leave something at the scene of the crime. At the same time, he [sic] will also take something back with him [sic].’

A criminal can leave all sorts of evidence, including fingerprints, footprints, hair, skin, blood, bodily fluids, pieces of clothing and more. By coming into contact with things at a crime scene, a criminal also takes part of that scene with him/her, whether it’s dirt, hair or any other type of trace evidence.

So the first thing investigators must do, is to establish an area, radiating out from the point of the crime, that is sizeable enough to contain relevant physical evidence that may be present. A common entryway is often established that all crime scene personnel will use to enter and exit the scene and all people entering or leaving the scene are documented once the boundaries have been established.

The crime scene team then develops an evidence-collection strategy taking into consideration weather conditions, time of day and other factors.

Collecting visual evidence is the next step. It is done through specialised photography, videography, and nowadays, 3D photography. For some situations, sketches and diagrams are also created. During the evidence-collection process, it is crucial that the crime scene investigator follows proper procedures for collecting, packaging and preserving the evidence, especially if it is of a biological nature. Biological evidence can be destroyed or damaged by weather conditions, individuals can inadvertently contaminate it, or it can be overlooked entirely if alternate light sources are not used to inspect the scene.

I can accept that 3D photography might not be available to our ‘highly skilled, efficient and professional’ police, but there are basic principles to consider.

The only people allowed access to the crime scene are,

Certified Evidence Photographer

Certified Crime Scene Investigator

Certified Crime Scene Analyst

Certified Crime Scene Reconstructionist

Certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst

I am aware that there is currently no photographer in Bangladesh who has Evidence Photographer Certification. If so much money is being spent on weaponisation and surveillance, surely investing in basic skills for investigators should be a pre-requisite for our ‘highly skilled and efficient’ force.

The next steps to be taken include:

Photographing and documenting the scene

Collecting trace materials (especially from probable points of entry)

Collecting low-level DNA evidence by swabbing areas of likely contact

Collecting other items that may contain biological evidence

Locating and collecting latent fingerprints

During my visit to Warwick University I was not only required to wear special clothing, but I and all my equipment had to go through a special sterilisation procedure before I was allowed to enter the rooms. Contaminants brought in by external people were the biggest cause of damage to samples according to the scientists.

In the television news I saw BUET’s Director of Student Welfare, other people in plain clothes and can assume that the media team doing the documentation were in the crime scene too. Simply by the act of being there, they were all ‘tampering’ with evidence. All in the presence of the investigating team.

Worse yet was the fact that the police officers themselves were seen to be handling things with bare hands, a complete no no in the forensic world. Incompetence or malafide?

To ensure that the scene has been thoroughly searched, a second survey of the area is conducted as a quality control step. To make certain that all evidence is accounted for, an inventory log is created. The descriptions recorded into the log must match the photo of the evidence taken at the scene and the description included in the crime scene report. For instance, if a gun is collected, the serial number of the firearm in the evidence log must match the serial number shown in the photo that was taken at the scene. This paper trail establishes the chain of custody that will follow the evidence throughout the lifecycle of the case.

Seeing bumbling policemen rummaging through sensitive sources of data leaves one with little confidence that anything of consequence will be obtained by our ‘professional’ team. Of greater concern is the idea that this could be part of a bigger plot to divert the course of justice. That the court would once again be used to provide legal loopholes to give safe passage to the people the government rely upon to coerce our citizens. Abrar was brutally killed by people confident that they could get away with it. In the course of the murder and during the immediate follow up, they had the arrogance to stop for a meal, watch a Barcelona match on television and even prevent the police from entering the premises.

Are we watching the getaway plan in slow motion?


Shahidul Alam is a photographer and writer with a PhD in organic chemistry. During the forensic work for his exhibition on the disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, he worked in specialised laboratories at Falmouth University in UK. Oldenburg Institute in Germany and the Queensland Brain Institute in Brisbane, Australia.

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email