Story by Spc. Timothy Koster
BAGHDAD – It’s time to pack up the jars of pickled infant animals, cases of insect specimen, and miniature models, Gil Grissom. A new forensics team is in town.
Insert a witty one-liner, immediately follow it with a video montage of some crime scene investigating, add some lyrics from a Who song, and CBS has its newest installment of its long-running law enforcement program - CSI: Baghdad.
All right, so an Iraq-themed crime scene drama may not be hitting the prime-time television market anytime soon. However, the progress of Iraqi forensic police officers learning evidence testing techniques and procedures is anything but a scripted piece of fiction.
Officers with Iraq’s Federal Police have been working with International Narcotic and Law Enforcement contractors in a series of Tool Marking and Firearms, Chemical, and DNA forensics classes at the Baghdad Police College throughout the month of September. The courses are designed to create qualified individuals to operate self-sustaining forensics labs around the country.
To help create the best learning environment, forensic law enforcement veterans, with several years of specialized lab experience in their respective field, teach each course. While their reasons for coming to Iraq are personal, the expectations of the end-state are unanimous: teach forensic scientists and create a laboratory which allows for adequate and fair processing of evidence to prove guilt or innocence in a court of law.
This country used to be a place where suspects would get beaten until they confessed to a crime, said Chris Binion, a chemical forensics teacher. But now, evidence, judges, and rule of law dominate the judicial system.
“It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting better,” Binion said, a native of Alexandria, Ky.
These courses are helping improve the system because, unlike what the television program may portray, crime scene scientists are not jacks-of-all-trades, but rather extremely knowledgeable subject matter experts in their particular field, said Shane Gaghan, a firearms and tool marks instructor.
Students of the Chemistry Forensics course learn about chemical compositions and how knowing what something is made of can determine where it came from and who made it.
Prominent cases in Iraq involve improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, and small arms fire attacks. The ability to identify chemical compositions of the various explosive components used in these attacks can help determine where the materials were manufactured, and could potentially provide evidence for a suspect’s conviction.
Much like the unique composition of chemicals used to make explosives, the tools used to make them and the weapons used in small arms fire attacks, make unique striation marks on the devices, bullets and shells, respectively.
Students of the Firearms and Tool Marking Forensics course learn how to use scientific instruments to determine if bullets and shells collected at a crime scene or marks on the fragments of an explosive device, match the weapon or tools owned by a suspect.
“Firearms and tool marks is one of the oldest forensic techniques,” said Gaghan, a retired 10-year Philadelphia police veteran. “People here have always been doing this. There was just a need to update technology and skill sets.”
In contrast, one of the newest forms of crime scene forensics, and arguably one of the most impactful, is that of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA – the hereditary chemical material found in the nucleus and mitochondria of complex organisms’ cells that determines the unique physical and cellular composition of each person, with the exception of biological twins, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.
Students of the DNA Forensic Course learn how to recover this microscopic material from bodily fluids, such as blood, saliva, and semen, left behind at crime scenes, said Page Bowlus, a DNA forensics instructor. The material is then multiplied, using a chemical process, into a quantifiable amount for a variety of tests to be run.
Aside from teaching students and bringing their skills up to the standards of the international accreditation system, the INL instructors also have the important mission of supplying laboratories around the country with state-of-the-art equipment to maximize the effectiveness of their students’ skills once they get to the field.
Binion, Gaghan, Bowlus, and the rest of their team agree that the labs they’ve helped establish here technologically rival any lab found in the United States. However, one challenge the team and students face is Baghdad’s electrical infrastructure, which is unable to consistently handle the intense power requirements of the equipment.
“The infrastructure has been an issue to support the lab equipment,” said Dale Price, a DNA Forensic instructor. “It’s not easy work, it’s a challenge. But, it’s a reward to see all the progress we have made.”
This setback doesn’t stop the student’s overwhelming desire to learn and the teachers’ ability to adapt to the situation as the city’s workers continue to build and increase its infrastructure capabilities.
“The people we teach have such a desire to learn,” said Bowlus, a Brandon, Miss. native.
This desire to learn, in conjunction with the teachers’ expertise, creates a recipe for the long-term success of Iraq’s law enforcement and crime scene investigation as a self-sustaining force to serve and protect the people of their country.