Catching the invisible, elusive criminal


  • Singapore
  • Monday, 09 Mar 2020

SINGAPORE: His brief was simple. Identify and find a passenger who had taken a taxi whose driver had Covid-19.

But all Senior Staff Sergeant Mohamad Shapie Saleh had to go on were that the passenger had alighted at Chai Chee Road and a blurred photo, obtained from a different police team, that gave him a rough idea of the man’s attire.

Senior Staff Sgt Shapie spent around four hours scouring footage from over 40 closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras at five blocks in the area to find out where the passenger had gone.

“We needed to exercise patience and concentration,” he said, adding that they had to scrutinise every single figure in the footage.

His work is part of an extensive police operation that runs round the clock to assist the Ministry of Health (MOH) in contact tracing.

About 30 to 50 police officers are on contact-tracing duty on any given day, although police said numbers can be scaled quickly to 100 if the need arises.

The work is first undertaken by Health Ministry staff, who conduct interviews with confirmed cases and identify close contacts within 24 hours of confirming the case.

But the police are tapped to further investigate the patient’s whereabouts and activities, or to help when MOH staff cannot identify or locate a close contact. They also analyse data to find links between cases.Senior Assistant Commissioner (SAC) Lian Ghim Hua, the second deputy director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), said the challenge is to quickly locate close contacts to prevent further spread of the virus.

Officers also need to be patient and skilful in their interviews as they need to draw out information from people who often cannot recall their every movement from two weeks ago, he added. The work is highly resource-intensive.

Officers and analysts tasked with contact tracing work in shifts of four teams: a command team, which coordinates operations; an interview team, which speaks to patients and close contacts, an analysis team that reviews data; and a field team, which tracks down possible close contacts.

A key role of the interview team is to fill any gaps in a patient’s activity map, which details their movements and the people they interacted with in the 14 days before their symptoms appeared and until they are isolated.

However, officers have encountered some unique challenges in trying to do so.

Like others in the interview team, Assistant Superintendent Johnny Lim had a tough time convincing others over the phone that he is a contact tracer. Some did not know that the police were doing contact tracing and were worried that he might be a scammer.

“It slows us down, but as much as possible, we try to convince them,” he said, adding that he would refer sceptics to the CID hotline and ask them to verify his details with the head office. Where possible, he would go down to hospitals to meet patients in person. — The Straits Times/ANN

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