New Ontario forensics facility brings crime under a world-class spotlight
The Toronto Star - July 11, 2013
“It’s sort of like a symphony orchestra,” says Dr. Michael Pollanen, motioning to the gleaming, empty garage, imagining a team of dedicated forensic scientists, pathologists, police and other staff who will soon work together there to solve complex crimes and sudden deaths.
Pollanen, Ontario’s chief forensics pathologist, is standing in the extraction bay, a concept never before used in the province. It’s a place to remove bodies from vehicles that have been involved in a serious accident, such as one involving a fire, or a crime.
When the province’s sprawling new $1 billion Forensic Services and Coroner’s Complex opens this fall at Keele St. and Wilson Ave., it will mark the first time investigators will be able to remove a car from a crime scene with a body still inside; bring it here, where scientists and forensic specialists can remove the body; and collect evidence — all in a controlled environment with cameras documenting their every move.
Pollanen said the new facility, which will incorporate the Centre of Forensic Sciences, the Office of the Chief Coroner and the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service, will streamline the way those services handle crime scene investigation and “the search for the truth.”
“The police would bring the vehicle here and then, because we’re in a multidisciplinary forensic facility, all experts are on site,” Pollanen said. “Traditionally you go to the crime scene. But in some cases . . . much better to bring the crime scene to us.”
Forensic pathologists and anthropologists, who specialize in studying body decomposition, can work with police forensic officers to document the conditions of the body, where it is in the car, damage to the vehicle and other evidence, before extricating the remains.
From there, the six-floor building is designed to help with workflow. The car can be sent to a separate underground bay for further analysis or driven into a firing range to take part in ballistics testing — something forensic scientists weren’t able to do on the old range, Tony Tessarolo, director of the Centre of Forensic Sciences, explained.
Bagged evidence can be moved to another floor through secured evidence elevators for further testing, while the body moves to the autopsy area for post-mortem examination.
Deep inside the facility is the new autopsy area, where Pollanen and his team will conduct those exams — not in a dark basement with harsh overhead lighting, like in crime television dramas, but in a massive, sterile room with sunlight pouring in from skylights.
This is actually vastly important, Pollanen explained, to properly examine things like abrasions and bullet wounds, where colour and shape matter and are better seen in natural light.
“This is really the heart of our new facility,” Pollanen said. Here the bodies of murder victims, children who die under tragic circumstances, and anyone the coroner deems should be subject to forensic examination will wind up on a shiny metal slab.
Staff here will probably be able to perform 3,500 to 4,000 autopsies a year, compared with 2,000 at the old facility. That would be the lion’s share of the 6,000 performed in the province each year.
When bodies aren’t being examined, they will now be stored in a large room where rows of trays already line the space wall-to-wall. “It’s basically a big fridge,” he says, held at 4C.
The building has storage for hundreds of bodies, Pollanen said, compared with about 100 in the old facility.
After an autopsy, blood and urine are sent up to toxicology labs to test for drugs, alcohol or poisons.
When a crime is involved in the death, the important last stage for pathologists is testifying in court about what they’ve learned about the case — something made simpler by detailed video of their examinations and the ability to appear by video link from the new complex.
The facility is about more than CSI, Pollanen says. The size allows for better handling of future mass disasters and for teaching forensic pathologists across Canada. It was also designed to improve the province’s epidemic readiness.
In a small space, down white corridors and through a sealed anteroom, is a Level 3 biohazard containment room, where pathologists can perform autopsies in cases that pose a risk for highly transmissible diseases, such as SARS. It’s the first of its kind for forensics in Canada.
“This facility represents the whole package,” Pollanen said, standing next to the windowed room. “I would say this is actually the best facility in the world right now.”
The public is invited to view the new facility, at 25 Morton Shulman Ave. (west of Keele St., south side of Wilson Ave.), on July 21 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.