Forensic evidence at risk of contamination at ageing lab facility
The Federal Police's forensics facility at Weston is 32 years old. Photo: Rohan Thomson
The Australian Federal Police have been forced to send evidence to New Zealand for examination because of ''background contamination'' in its 32-year-old Weston forensic centre and has warned that samples could be lost or contaminated unless a more modern facility is built.
The AFP proposes to build a $106 million forensic and data centre at its Majura complex to replace the Weston building, which was opened in 1980 and refurbished in 2000 and 2007. The new facility would be large enough to manage the scientific examination of evidence after a terrorist incident, such as a Bali-style bombing in Australia or a neighbouring country.
The Weston centre is the only federal forensic crime laboratory and one of only two fully integrated forensic capabilities in Australia.
In a submission to Parliament's Public Works Committee, the AFP said background contamination at Weston was preventing the use of contemporary forensic practices, including specialist DNA ''low copy number'' analysis, culturing of micro-organisms, and trace-element profiling, which required clean rooms.
''It has been necessary on occasions for certain forensic procedures to be carried out for the AFP in New Zealand, with resultant impacts on time and cost of analysis. Internal modifications to the current facility will not rectify these contamination challenges,'' the submission said.
The situation was expected to be exacerbated as forensic services and staff numbers grew. ''In the face of rapidly increasing demand for forensic services and inadequate facilities that do not have the capacity to house efficient modern techniques and processes, it is inevitable that delays in evidence processing will occur, as well as instances where there is a risk through loss or contamination of forensic evidence.
''In the absence of investment in an enhanced forensic facility, experience from Victoria and overseas suggests that it is not a question as to whether those problems would emerge for the AFP, but rather when those problems would emerge and the magnitude of the costs that they would impose on the community.''
While meeting a international standard, laboratories were not equipped to allow best practice in the areas of evidence-handling, triage management and access control.
The new AFP facility would give staff the capacity to conduct several complex examinations simultaneously, or for a complex examination to occur in parallel with more routine work.
''The new facility also makes it far more efficient for FDC to comply with the rigorous anti-contamination processes that would follow a large-scale post-blast incident in Australia or the neighbouring region,'' the submission said.
''Facilitating the AFP's response to the Bali bombings in 2002 required a significant allocation of resources and a drop in efficiency and productivity throughout the existing
facility occurred, in order to ensure those standards were met.''
The new forensic and data centre would be built on 199-hectare block which is currently being used for driver training and would be fully operational by the end of 2015.
Heritage assessments of the new site had discovered several Aboriginal artefacts and the ruins of a European house.
Local Aboriginal organisations had been consulted and the Aboriginal artefacts would be located prior to any work.
An archeologist would be present at the commencement of construction and to identify any more artefacts.