An Elementary Lesson in reading Police Forms

Changing Attitude have produced a police report from the attack on Davis Mac-Iyalla, which examines the syringe that was used in the attack. You can see a copy of the report to the right (and if you click on it it will send you to a larger version on the CA website).

Changing Attitude claim the following:

The certificate says is [sic] that the substance was a poisonous drug. The police apparently tested for heroin and cocaine assuming the syringe contained a drug and not another poisonous substance.

I’m afraid the certificate does not say that. The certificate says that the substance is alleged to be poisonous (Drogue Suspectée – Substance D’empoisonnement) but that upon testing was found to contain no substance that showed up on the chromatographic study. There is absolutely nothing on the certificate that indicates either:

  • that the testing was limited to heroin and cocaine
  • that any illegal or suspicious substance was found

The use of the term "drogue" here extends beyond just illicit narcotics and covers all kinds of substances (hence the line on the form being Drogue Suspectée applying to poison). It also explains why the last line of the report says Recherche de drogue NEGATIVE – the usage of drogue is again a wider usage than just illegal narcotics.

But that’s not the end of it. It makes absolutely no scientific sense that an investigation to examine whether the substance was poisonous (which is what the form is for – to investigate a substance to confirm the allegation – in this case that the substance was poisonous) would limit itself to just two illegal narcotics. If you undertook a Chromatographic analysis of a substance you wouldn’t restrict it to looking for a particular substance, because that’s not how Chromatography works. How it actually works is that you analyse the material using standard methods and then the outcome tells you what the substance is. So essentially, you let the machine do the work and it spits out the answer which you interpret. You don’t go to the machine and say "Is this heroin?" You go to the machine and you say "What is this?" and it gives you a chromatogram which tells you more or less what the thing is.

But let’s not stop there. Assuming that the police were only interested in whether the substance was heroin or cocaine, chromatography is not the best way to discover that (though it is great for discovering poisons). A much more efficient way to check for just heroin or cocaine is to use Mass Spectrometry which will tell you straight away what a substance is.

Or at least so says Mrs Ould (D.Phil. Oxon), Biochemist extraordinaire.

So what are we left with? Very simple really. We have a police report from Togo that says that a syringe, which was specifically tested to find out whether it had anything poisonous, using a scientific method which would easily show any trace of anything noxious or otherwise, came back blank. Empty.

No poison, no drugs, no nothing.

Which leaves me with only one question – Why bother stabbing someone with a syringe which seems to have had nothing more in it than coloured water?

8 Comments on “An Elementary Lesson in reading Police Forms

  1. Good grief. The desparation of these people is really pathetic. Does Mr. Coward really think that this makes Davis Mac Iylla any more credible?

  2. Jackie,

    I think this is just a combination of speedy (but inaccurate) translation and lack of scientific knowledge. Not intentionally malicious, but rather unfortunate none-the-less.

  3. I suppose that IS a genuine police document? I only ask because I’m surprised to see the word “malfra” used in an official report. It’s rather an informal word; I’d have expected the police to use a term like “malfaiteur”. It gives the report a slightly breezy tone that seems inappropriate: “10 cc of yellowish-coloured liquid in a syringe, dropped by a crook in the course of an attempted poisoning.” I know that colonial French will change over time; maybe this is an accepted term in Nigeria; it just struck me as a little strange.

  4. The wording of the Changing Attitude article has changed (they must have read your response). It now says
    The police reported to Davis Mac-Iyalla that they had tested for heroin and cocaine. The chromatographic test proved negative for drugs.
    The report concludes that the test for drugs was negative. It does not come to a conclusion about the possibility of the substance being a poison.

    From your quote above, chromatography would have tested for poisons, so as the police conclusion did not mention poisons, it is reasonable to assume that they did not find any.

  5. From Thinking Anglicans:

    I was personally responsible for organising the translation. It was carried out in England by a qualified member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, London, and proofread by another qualified member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.
    There is no possibility of mistranslation.
    Posted by: Erika Baker
    Someone has a oeuf on the face

  6. I think we need to be fair to Erika. The form was translated exactly. The issue is with Colin Coward’s initial use of the translation – his interpretation of the translation was incorrect.

  7. There’s no question about the translation – fortunately, the document is very clear and factual, and there are no “fuzzy” areas where ambiguities could hide. Incidentally, when I told my husband about the use of “malfra”, he said it rather reinforced the authenticity of the document. It’s what police would genuinely say. I was looking at it more are a legal document, where you want everything formal, but obviously, this was just a routine investigation, and the police weren’t trying to impress anyone, they were just getting the job done.

  8. Dr. Mabuse, having read many *American* police reports, I suspect your husband is right – very informal English, often very incorrect English, often with some unintentionally very funny bits.

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