William King

William King (left) demonstrates crime-scene processing to Trinidadian detectives

BGSU forensics expert helps Trinidad and Tobago police force

The island nation of Trinidad and Tobago has seen a frightening jump in homicides over the last five years. In response, the government has turned to a team of crime experts from American universities to help address the problem and transform the police service.

Dr. William King, criminal justice, is the forensics expert on a roughly 20-member team coordinated through George Mason University that comprises specialists in guns, gangs, drugs, crime mapping and community relations.

Trinidad and Tobago is home to about 1.3 million people. “In 1999, there were about 100 homicides a year in Trinidad and Tobago,” King said. “In 2005, there were 386.” The situation has overwhelmed the police, who do not have the management structure or the training necessary to deal with the resulting volume of investigation and crime-scene processing.

While the violence is largely focused on gang and drug-trade members, “it is naturally very disturbing to residents,” King said. “Working people and families, especially those who live in the hills surrounding the capital, Port of Spain, are very upset by what they see happening in their communities.

“The police have been very receptive to our help,” he said. King began his work in October with two weeks of training homicide investigators. “We’ve noticed that the quality of their homicide investigations has improved with only a little bit of training,” he said.

Now spending about one week of every three in Trinidad, King’s approach has been two-pronged. Because the violence has been concentrated in specific neighborhoods where gangs operate, he stays at one of the local police stations on Thursday and Friday nights and accompanies the homicide detectives to crime scenes. “Often we’re the first police unit on the scene, even before the uniformed officers have arrived,” he noted. He then observes the way in which the police process the crime scene, gather evidence and interview witnesses.

One challenge, he said, is that the “investigators tend not to approach witnesses and canvas neighborhoods,” a problem compounded by the fact that witnesses are usually reluctant to speak with the police, perhaps out of fear. This is a problem that will take time and additional effort to overcome, King said. “All the forensics in the world will not help if there aren’t witnesses who will testify.”

Based on what he sees at the crime scenes, he is making recommendations and providing training to the police. “There’s been a marked improvement in crime-scene processing,” he said.

The second approach is working with the crime laboratory staff on processing evidence. The lab maintains a large database but has become backlogged since the upsurge in violent crime. King is working with Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of National Security to institute strategic management policies to standardize and speed up the staff’s work so a solid case can be built and brought to trial without undue delay.

Crime-lab experts from the United Kingdom and the FBI have also visited to lend assistance, and a large team of police from the U.K. is in the process of moving to the island for intensive, in-residence support. Trinidad and Tobago operates under the British, magisterial system of jurisprudence, in which the arresting officers must prosecute their own cases and “the defense bar is very good,” King said. Plans are under way to provide the officers more training in presenting evidence and gaining convictions.

King, graduate student coordinator for the Criminal Justice Program, said his chair and dean have been helpful in arranging his schedule so he can make regular visits to Trinidad, which will continue through August. The grant operates through the newly created Crime and Justice Research Lab at BGSU.

The U.S. crime reduction team is headed by Drs. Stephen Mastrofski and Edward Maguire of George Mason University, along with four other GMU faculty. A number of trainers are participating from the Justice and Safety Institute at Pennsylvania State University and Justice and Security Systems—a Washington, D.C.-area firm—plus eight other team members (including King) from various universities.
June 5, 2006