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Behind the scenes at the Toronto Police Service forensic unit

Detective Constable Christine Handy conducts a laser scan for fingerprint examination on a Ruger SR9 handgun at the Toronto Police Service Forensic Identification Services (FIS) laboratory.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Far away from flashing lights and yellow police tape, a cluster of alphabetized buildings in the shadow of Canada's busiest highway is home to the Toronto Police Service Forensic Identification Service, or FIS, where officers in lab coats help solve mysteries.

In Toronto, there are approximately 30,000 crime-related events annually. Evidence ranging from blood splatter to footprint impressions and firearms are collected, much of it making its way to the forensic unit.

Each year, approximately 300 to 500 guns and 9,000 rounds of ammunition seized and collected by police are delivered to building A, where they are swabbed, treated with chemicals and flashed with lasers. Once unpacked, investigators like Detective Constable Christine Handy examine the exhibits for traces of DNA and fingerprints. Using techniques that range from household items to the most sophisticated technology, she tries to fill in missing pieces of the puzzle, often securing key evidence that is critical in linking suspects to a crime.

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As a career police officer, Det. Constable Handy has done it all, but says she now finds her forensic work the most gratifying.

"I started on the streets working to find the guns and now I'm finding prints and DNA. Its an important part of helping keep people safe," she said.

I have always been keenly interested in what goes on behind the scenes. As photojournalists, we often cover breaking news but rarely show what happens after the police tape comes down. The FIS was my first thought.

Photographing with laser light posed fewer challenges than I first thought. The green light wavelengths are unique and create an effect on highlights that cannot be achieved with conventional light.

Staff Inspector Steve Harris, who heads up the team, says new technology has made a notable difference in solving crimes.

"Today we have new fingerprint technology that has allowed us to go back and find matches that we couldn't ten years ago," he said.

But these new advancements in crime fighting also bring with them a modern day reality check. In what he calls "The CSI Factor," Staff Insp. Harris says his team often faces unrealistic expectations from the public, lawyers and jury members that get clouded by dramatized television shows.

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"It has helped to get young people interested in forensic work," he happily adds.

As is often the case with crime-related firearms, serial numbers are either scratched out or obliterated.

Detective Constable Mark Borneman, one of two officers who specializes in serial-number restoration, uses painstaking techniques to try to bring back the missing information that is used to trace the gun's history.

"It's like fishing," Det. Constable Borneman says of his painstaking work. "You don't always catch a fish but you keep trying and when you do catch one it feels good."

"It's very satisfying to bring a number back."

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