According to the Secretary of Public Safety Elmer Román, the Forensic Sciences Bureau (BFS, Spanish acronym) is better prepared to face major disasters –such as earthquakes or hurricanes- than two years ago thanks to collaboration agreements the entity signed.
These agreements include the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), the Defense Department and the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD).
“We worked on those agreements for them to assist us. There is communication with them and agreements to work together have been formalized,” Román said. "We ask for support from these organizations and they assist us with personnel and with forensic pathology," he added.
During the last two years, BFS has lost nearly 20 forensic investigators and is suffering a severe crisis due to equipment shortages and administrative deficiencies.
Contrary to Román, former BFS commissioner Beatriz Zayas said in a separate interview with El Nuevo Día that they can only count on immediate help from the Department of Defense.
Zayas indicated that both the NAAG and the ASCLD will assist but other logistics would be required to help the BFS in case of a catastrophe.
“ASCLD and Attorney General are two organizations with which (former) Secretary (Héctor) Pesquera and Wanda Vázquez reached agreements to assist and advise us on small missions,” said Zayas. “They are there to advise us as much as they can, but they don’t come automatically. The military does,” she said.
BFS has five regular forensic pathologists and three under contract. According to Román, in September 2017, there were four pathologists at BFS.
During María, one of the two BFS generators failed, but Román said both are in good condition now. The four new forensic trucks, which were at the center of controversy in August and led Zayas to leave the agency, are already in use.
The other factor is the handling of corpses. Between October and December 2017, BFS received 992 corpses at a time when a large number of hospitals had problems with electricity. At the same time, a years-long problem aggravated: a large number of bodies arriving unnecessarily at the BFS, due to alleged errors when doctors complete death certificates. In addition to this problem, prosecutors insist on corpses to be processed at the BFS.
BFS has the capacity to store up to 600corpses, including eight refrigerated wagons for that purpose.
“Medical staff were not certifying the deaths and were sending the corpses directly to Forensics. The Health Department has trained doctors who can complete death certificates in hospitals,” Román said. "They are monitoring that the medical staff complete the forms correctly."
According to Román, the BFS will be strict in exercising its authority to reject corpses that don’t need to be handled by the agency. For Zayas, the BFS’s capacity to store corpses in an emergency should not be in doubt, and she said that they reached the storage limit, it would be up to the Health Department to handle the problem.
“But cases are going to take longer. We are talking about a higher volume. Certainly, they won’t be criminal cases, but they will be corpses already in the agency plus the new ones. Because of the number of pathologists and human resources, if we have a situation like María, cases will take more than a month,” he told this newspaper.
New Progressive Party lawmakers Henry Neumann and Juan Oscar Morales, who are the ones who have closely investigated BFS operations, agreed that the lack of legislation places BFS and the government in a vulnerable position in the face of an emergency by failing to efficiently count deaths caused by an emergency.
Neumann referred to Senate Bill 713, vetoed by former Governor Ricardo Rosselló in the last days of his term, which establishes a protocol to follow in case an emergency is declared and which includes the obligation of doctors to specify the cause and the way a person died to correctly list those deaths related to the catastrophe.
Neumann reintroduced the measure through Senate Bill 1363.
"It’s a priority that this measure becomes law so we don’t have to go through the embarrassing circumstances that the government went through for not being able to inform the world about the people who died as a result of the hurricane," Neumann said. "Right now the main problem with BFS is not the lack of equipment or resources, the main problem is that half of the corpses they receive should not be there."
Aixa Estrada, vice president of the United Public Servants Local 2099 which groups BFS staff, said that hospitals used BFSas "a warehouse."
"They didn’t have power, they didn't have facilities in good conditions and morgues were not working," Estrada said.
“There are different types of tests and not all corpses that arrive at BFS are autopsied. Doctors can certify and send the body to the funeral home, but they didn’t and couldn’t be sent to funeral homes,” the union leader added. "I think you have to resolve the problem with prosecutors and doctors."
As for Morales, House Bill 1699, sponsored by four other representatives, authorizes BFS to refuse to receive corpses for natural deaths that are not suspicious referred by doctors, hospitals and clinics if that not properly justified. The case has been in the Senate Rules and Calendar Committee since May.
"I would have expected it to be approved the last session," Morales said. “With the bill, the number of corpses arriving at BFS will drop. It will determine the criteria to receive bodies.”
On one hand, Morales said there´s been progress in BFS with the purchase of new equipment such as trucks, stretchers, and cranes, "but we still lack equipment and I’m not satisfied with what has been done."
The Union reacts
Jesús M. Ayala, president of the United Public Servants Local 2099, which groups BFS employees, said María didn’t cause the entity's problems "but highlighted them."
“BFS was already having problems before María and it was because of employees who left looking for better benefits. Today we have fewer experts, fewer serologists, fewer chemists, fewer firearms examiners, less staff to handle digital evidence and fewer forensic investigators,” Ayala noted.
But he acknowledged they hired temporary staff, such as pathology room technicians. However, beyond experts leaving and the hiring process, Ayala admitted that there is a serious discomfort among employees frustrated by low salaries.
"I don't know what the employees’ feelings would be and whether they would respond in time," he said.
For example, a forensic chemist I salary starts at $ 2,213 and increases just over $ 400 for forensic II category. A serologist starts at $ 2,213 a month, with a base salary of $ 2,677 for serologists II. A clerk starts at $ 1,433 a month, forensic investigators I at $ 2,012, security personnel at $ 1,300, evidence custodians at $ 1,659, the same amount that applies to photo technicians, forensic laboratory technicians, pathology technicians, and human resources technicians. Forensic interviewers start at $ 1,500. According to a study by the union, these salaries turn pale when compared to salaries for the same positions in the mainland.