SINGAPORE: With an earsplitting crack, the sound of gunshots reverberates around the vastness of the hall, startling its occupants. The metallic clink of empty bullet shells falling on the hard floor quickly follows.
“Move! Move!” shouts an elderly man in a black jacket to a group of uniformed police officers.
“What do you do?” he asks the officers, with a sense of urgency.
“Put up the tape, ask your witness questions, take down her number, call the number back immediately to make sure she’s given you the right one!”
Everything moves fast. A white tape goes up to mark the start of the crime scene, officers in face masks bring in bulky containers with their forensic equipment and quietly go about placing luminous evidence markers next to the empty casings.
Thankfully, no crime had been committed on Friday (Nov 10). Everything from the shootout, done by trained officers, to the venue - an indoor live firing range at the Home Team Tactical Centre in Mandai - had been meticulously prepared to train about 30 forensic officers and investigators from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).
The man instructing the officers was Dr Henry Lee, a renowned forensic scientist from the United States. He’s investigated more than 8,000 cases during his career, including the famous OJ Simpson trial, as well as chairing the forensic committee during the reinvestigation into the assassination of US’ 35th President, John F Kennedy.
LET THE EVIDENCE TELL THE STORY
In Singapore, he was training local officers as part of the Shooting Reconstruction Workshop. Leading the group of young forensic officers to the badly hit vehicle, which was the target of the 'attack' - Dr Lee was handed a trajectory kit which he inserted into one of the bullet holes in the windscreen.
He then took a few steps back and shot a laser beam to the trajectory kit. An officer sprayed a liquid in the air between the laser and the kit, illuminating an otherwise invisible green line connecting the two. In an instant, the bullet’s trajectory and the perpetrator’s position at the time of the shooting magically appeared.
“You have to let the evidence tell you what happened,” Dr Lee said in an interview later. Each piece of evidence, from the casings to the bullet holes, is a missing puzzle to provide a complete picture.
“Just now we found three different types of casing. Some are from rifles, some are handguns. In terms of ammunition, I noticed some were made in Switzerland, some made in the US, some made in different countries. So this already tells me that it could be an international conspiracy - using different ammunition.”
“Then, the bullet hole on the window gave us information. Through the study of radio fracture and concentric rings, we know the possible velocity of the bullet, and also the sequence, which one fired first, which one the second and third.”
To Dr Lee’s trained eye, he can even tell from the trajectory if it was a random shooting or a planned assassination.
BEEFING-UP COUNTER TERRORISM EXPERTISE FOR SHOOTINGS IN SINGAPORE
It comes from years of investigating crime scenes involving shootings. Dr Lee said on his busiest day, he covered 27 shootings. And with the number of terrorism-related shootings occurring with more frequency in the US, Dr Lee said countries like Singapore too should be prepared to deal with such an event.
“In the Las Vegas shooting, almost 60 people died, and there was another shooting incident in Texas last week,” Dr Lee said.
“In European countries, domestic and international terrorists have also switched to different weapons - it used to be bombings, now they use guns and vehicles.
“In Singapore, while there are only a few shooting incidents, you cannot wait until something happens to learn what to do,” he said.
“We should do some exercise and study way ahead of time. So all the detectives and crime scene people should have the preparations in place.”
For Mohamed Amir Mohamed Arshad, the workshop was a way of getting hands-on experience in a scenario he rarely comes across.
“It’s definitely new in a way when we approach differently so for this case, we learned about the important details we could find out just by measuring the bullet holes,” the Senior Crime Scene Specialist said.
TECHNOLOGY AND BIG DATA CAN HELP, BUT NOTHING LIKE HONING SKILLS: DR LEE
The five-day workshop will also expose officers to scenarios involving police shootings, such as those occurring in the US which result in conflict between members of the public and law enforcement officers.
“If you don’t handle it correctly, you’ll have a riot, burning, looting and so on,” Dr Lee said.
“Maybe it will not happen (here) but if it does, how to handle it, how to do it timely and objectively so that the community doesn’t feel that the police tried to cover up an incident.”
Increasingly, enforcement officers around the world are also using big data and technology to bring the lab to the crime scene, as Dr Lee put it.
He gave the example of the national integrated database for ballistics in which a scan of the evidence from the crime scene can result in getting information such as the type of casing and weapons in real-time.
“Currently, you collect the casing, label it, seal it and send it to the lab,” Dr Lee said.
“There, they open up the package, study and try to figure it out. That may take weeks or months.”
But even with the availability of the most advanced equipment, Dr Lee said there is nothing quite like honing one’s skills and qualities to solve a crime.
“The first quality is to train them to have a powerful observation. You have to see it. Secondly it’s the ability for logical thinking. The third is patience and details. So the knowledge is accumulated.”