KEEPING UP WITH THE CRIMS: EAST JAVA’S FORENSIC SLEUTHS
© Duncan Graham 2006
When pictures of the aftermath of the first Bali bomb were televised, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer expressed his annoyance to journalists.
Crowds of people were picking through the debris seeking souvenirs and stickybeaking. Where were the police lines? Why wasn’t the site secure? What chance of finding evidence?
In this case his fears were unfounded as the bombers were caught and convicted. But his worries are also shared by Bambang Setiawan, head of the Police Forensic Laboratory in Surabaya.
“It’s one of the many concerns we have and which frustrate investigations,” he said. “Officers in the field need to be aware that crime scenes must be preserved intact and onlookers kept away. It’s another aspect of training.”
Forensics aren’t at the sharp end of police duties. Most who chose a career in crime-fighting prefer the adrenalin rush of a high-speed chase, a shoot out, a dash in the dark to nab a felon.
Laboratory work is quiet and methodical; it’s cerebral, not muscular. It means wearing rubber gloves rather than a holster, peering down microscopes, analysing chemicals, thinking deeply and cleverly to outsmart the cunning crims. It’s often boring and lonely.
But when the results gain convictions even the most heavy-fisted cop from the school of hard knocks has to pause in admiration for his tertiary-trained colleagues.
The Surabaya lab investigates cases from across East Java and much of Kalimantan, a catchment area of more than 42 million people. To handle this workload Bambang has only 40 scientists and technicians, and just a few machines.
But help is on its way. Eighteen months ago experts from the US Department of Justice visited Surabaya and reported on the lab.
They found that while Bambang was respected and his colleagues had depth of experience, knowledge and skill, much equipment was outdated.
This year the lab expects high tech replacements under a program called the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program. (ICITAP)
They’ve already received a nifty piece of gear that can compare bullets and cases. Was this the gun that killed? Test fire the weapon and slip the recovered projectile under one microscope and the slug from the deceased under another lens to see if they match.
The miniscule grooves and scratches made as the bullet whizzes down the barrel, magnified thousands of times, can be as revealing as a fingerprint or DNA sample.
The need for updating in the lab was made clear when arson expert Didik Subiyantoro tried to show The Jakarta Post scenes and evidence from last year’s siege at Batu when police killed fugitive bomb maker Azahari. Crash! A virus had infected the computer.
“Our virus protection is out of date and we haven’t got the money for a new version,” said Bambang.
“White collar criminals are often well educated and skilled in technology. We have to keep up with them and hopefully get ahead. Scientific crime investigation in Indonesia must develop further.”
His point was reinforced in the counterfeit section where Indiyani Budhiarti feeds US $100 bills through a machine that detects dud money. But it can’t pick genuine American notes printed since 2003. Her collection of seemingly flawless Rp 100,000 fakes is a tribute to the extraordinary skills of modern forgers and a warning to bank tellers and cashiers everywhere.
In another room Fadjar Septi Ariningsih puts urine samples from suspected druggies, suspicious powders out of travellers’ baggage and substances found in bomb factories through a gas chromatograph mass spectra machine. Azahari’s Batu hideout included a complex collection of unlabeled chemicals scattered among the debris. All had to be identified.
“There is no forensic academy in Indonesia, and that’s a major deficiency,” said Bambang. “We need staff with specialist training – I could employ up to 100 if I had the technology.
“A priority is equipment to test DNA samples and I hope this will arrive soon through the ICITAP scheme. At the moment we can’t analyse voices, hair or fibre.”
The lab staff have qualifications in pharmacology, chemistry and physics. Because no two cases are the same they have to keep open minds and reject the obvious solutions. Was he poisoned or did he die of natural causes? Either could be correct. If the death was violent was the toxin administered by others or the victim? If by others, with his permission? Or was it an accident? The questions go on and on.
People who work daily on grim and ghastly tasks often develop a lively cheerfulness to offset the horror of humanity’s inhumanity, and it’s the same with Bambang’s team. They’re the first called in after the fire has been quenched, the deaths confirmed and the bomb exploded.
They collect samples and take the pictures. Because these are carefully shot for evidence they’re sickening in their freshness and clarity. Hunched over a computer for hours peering at shattered cadavers and entrails splattered across walls, phials of putrid samples at your elbow, is not a task for the squeamish.
In this job you either develop a cheerful buoyancy, become detached and cynical, or go mad. Fortunately Surabaya’s police forensic scientists have chosen the first approach and are likely to remain sane.
Particularly if the new equipment arrives soon.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 January 2006)