CSI: Plattekloof style

2013-10-28 08:00

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One of four forensic laboratories in SA, this state-of-the-art facility provides answers to court-case backlogs, writes Biénne Huisman

The Cape Town suburb of Plattekloof is home to a hospital and a few shops. It’s flanked by a small hill covered in roads named after flowers and trees, with side-by-side facebrick houses behind low fences and golf ball postboxes.

Over weekends, it smells of freshly cut grass, braai meat and brandy-fuelled rugby fever.

Plattekloof seems like the kind of place that was quite happily forgotten by history.

This changed two years ago when the unassuming suburb also became home to South Africa’s top police forensics laboratory, built and equipped for a total of R600 million.

The SA Police Service (SAPS) forensic scientific laboratory sprawls between the Panorama Medi-Clinic and the Plattekloof shopping centre like a giant robotic hand.

Each finger, or wing, houses a highly specialised division.

These include ballistics, with its state-of-the-art bullet-cap filing system; DNA analysis, where stories are extracted from vialed samples of blood, semen and hair; scientific analysis, mostly focused on probing images and compiling lie detector tests; disputed documents, home of handwriting and forgery experts; and chemical analysis, which mainly does drug tests.

Not everyone who pulls up outside the building will know that beneath the parking lot lies an underground shooting range, complete with human-shaped targets before a wall of Kevlar-infused bags, and an escape route that exits at the complex’s electric gate.

The palm of the hand contains an airy four-storey volume reception area, where framed photographs of Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega greet visitors.

While waiting to be allowed into the building, I survey the space, taking out my cellphone to snap shots to help with later recollections.

Within moments, I am surrounded by suits.

“You have to delete those. You can’t take pictures here, Miss,” an officer says sternly.

I explain that I am a journalist. That a photographer will be joining me soon. That we were given explicit permission to observe and document the insides of this mysterious building, feted by Mthethwa as key to his plans to instill “smarter policing” and to fight forensic backlogs.

The officer looks doubtful and, while eyeing me suspiciously, barks into an intercom for some length of time.

Soon, the photographer and I are led into the belly of the shimmering glass-and-silver beast to the office of Brigadier Deon Meintjies, section head of the laboratory.

Meintjies is tall and trim with broad shoulders beneath his olive green

V-neck jumper. He wears a neatly knotted tie and a cautious smile. We are invited to join him for coffee on black leather couches in his office, with views that stretch as far as Robben Island on clear days.

Needless to say, getting the 28 000m² building with its staff of 451 operational in November 2011 – without adding further pressure to the nation’s existing forensic delays – was a logistical feat.

“We had a staggered approach to moving into the laboratory. It was done over six months,” Meintjies says.

The impressive building is the culmination of a process that can be traced as far back as 2000.

“We actually deserve a medal for perseverance. It was a very, very long process. We had to lobby for funds, followed by public participation and eventually we worked on the design.”

The building was designed around work flow, he explains, with architects drawing up initial plans in 2005. Construction started two years later. The building is funded by the SAPS and is managed by the department of public works.

“There was a growing need for forensic services in Cape Town, and it is terribly positive that the SAPS recognised this need and agreed to fund this project,” says Meintjies.

The Plattekloof forensic scientific laboratory replaced an old forensics centre leased by the SAPS in Delft on the Cape Flats.

One of four forensic laboratories in the nation (the others are in Durban, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria), it serves Western Cape and also parts of Eastern and Northern Cape.

Each wing in the building has its own kitchenette and coffee-making facilities. But they want to encourage cross-divisional communication, says Meintjies, and thus a communal canteen is on the cards.

“The highlight of this building is that it’s paying off. The environment is positive and people enjoy working here. So, despite the high-pressure jobs, people are productive.”

Meintjies leads us down sun-washed passages with white floors gleaming under fluorescent lights. He points out narrow railway lines crisscrossing overhead, with tiny carts scuttling backward and forward. These carts contain boxes with evidence, he explains.

The building is so big that physical objects are transported between storeys and wings on 800m of railway lines, in boxes that can only be opened by positive biometric identification, such as fingerprints.

Division head Colonel Jaco Westraat greets us at the chemical-analysis wing, showing us to his glass-encased laboratories where air pressure is controlled to ensure positive airflow, meaning that air can leave the room but not enter it.

“Drugs come in all shapes and sizes. When police officers confiscate compounds on the streets, they come straight here for analysis,” he explains.

In one of the labs, an expert in a white coat with rubber gloves is carefully unwrapping a blue tablet for analysis. “That was confiscated by police in Muizenberg. We suspect that it’s Mandrax, but everything must be tested empirically before it can be used as evidence in court, of course,” says Westraat.

Next, Meintjies lead us to the ballistics wing. Division head Colonel Willie Visser assures this reporter that he has got the “coolest job and that chicks dig it”! Once the exclusive domain of men, Visser appointed the first woman to ballistics in 1990.

Today, the gender ratio in the division is equal, he says.

Visser shows us their world-class automated storage and retrieval system, basically a huge computerised filing cabinet for thousands of bullet caps, a stainless steel tank filled with water for determining bullet velocity, their underground shooting range and quite obviously his personal favourite: an artillery museum with more than 300 pistols, cowboy Colts, hunting rifles, AK-47s, and crude weapons shaped by hand from chunks of metal and pipes.

Some of the pieces were confiscated; others are collectors’ items. Two ornate silver Lefaucheux revolvers in a green velvet-lined wooden box catch my eye. Visser followed my gaze. “It is a set. Those were used in duels in France.”

We are running out of time.

Lastly, Meintjies leads us to the DNA analysis, where division head Colonel Thembela Lamani says they process about 1 800 mostly blood, semen and hair samples a month.

This is important work.

Mthethwa himself has acknowledged “serious backlogs” within South Africa’s forensic services and says courts battle to finalise cases as a result.

In August, questions before Parliament revealed that forensic backlogs have increased by 322% since last year.

Mthethwa put the backlog in DNA and drug analysis at 10 247 this year, a 7 818 increase from last year.

Meanwhile, the DNA Bill is set to be passed this year. The new legislation will require DNA samples from all current prison inmates and additional arrested offenders, potentially rekindling scores of cold cases.

Back in Plattekloof, our visit has come to at end. At the exit, Meintjies smiles a goodbye.

The laboratory is situated in Kiepersol Close. The indigenous Kiepersol tree, known as mountain cabbage in English, Umsenge in isiXhosa and Umsengembuzi in isiZulu, is esteemed for its hardiness and sustainability, attributes the police hope will mark the work done at the facility.

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