Crime fight gets hi-tech boost
By JIMMY LEUNG
HONG Kong police have become the first in Asia to use sophisticated equipment that can detect whether explosives or drugs have been stored in a room - even after the substances have been removed.
Search unit officers are waiting for a suitable test case to see whether evidence collected by this equipment and analysed by a computer can be accepted in court if no drugs or explosives were found at the time of the search.
The Canada-made $1.3-million Ionscan will be used to collect samples of air in premises suspected of having been used to manufacture or store drugs or explosives.
Acting Chief Inspector Linda Wong Sin-pak said: ''We are the first police force in the world to actually own the advanced equipment ourselves.'' Using a portable device with small filters, an officer collects air to see if traces of drugs or explosives remain in the room.
''The equipment is used when a police officer has a strong suspicion that someone has handled explosives or drugs in the room, although he can't see traces of it,'' Ms Wong said.
''It can detect three different types of drugs at the same time.
''The filter is then put into a computer for a three-second analysis.'' With a portable battery charger, Ionscan can work at a crime scene for eight hours.
The EVD 8000, worth $700,000, is another device that can detect up to three types of explosives.
It takes a minute to determine whether air samples contain explosives or chemicals used to make a bomb.
The search police unit was set up in 1990 to take over the British Garrison's role in searching for firearms and explosives.
More than 120 police volunteers have been trained since 1992 to conduct systematic searches of crime scenes or venues to be used by visiting dignitaries.
Search unit commander Superintendent Colin Thornborrow, a former London policeman, said it was after the Brighton explosion in 1984 that British police began to look seriously into systematic anti-terrorist floor sweeps.
The then British prime minister, Lady Thatcher, narrowly escaped death when the IRA planted a bomb in the hotel where she and other top Conservative Party members were staying during the 1984 party convention.
''We are enhanced by the experience in the United Kingdom and other countries where authorities could not bring forward convictions due to contaminated evidence,'' Mr Thornborrow said.
''Hopefully, if evidence is challenged [in Hong Kong courts] we can rebut the challenge by using the results of the computer analysis.'' Mr Thornborrow joined the Hong Kong police in 1977 and was appointed in 1988 to form the search unit. He had attended courses in the UK on counter-terrorist searches and had field experience in Northern Ireland.
Apart from metal detectors and vehicle search mirrors, the unit has bought six springer spaniels from England to search for bombs.
Mr Thornborrow said the dogs were fast and could get into cramped places such as narrow ditches.