Christchurch terror attack: How victim identification works

More than 100 disaster victim identification (DVI) staff in Christchurch are now working to identify the victims of the Friday mosque attacks.

As of last night 21 victims have been identified and are available for release to their families. Police said on Wednesday morning they were expecting a further six to be identified by midday today.

It's a grim task, and families face an anguished wait for the bodies of their loved ones to be returned.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush says the team is working "relentlessly" to complete formal identifications.

"It was our intention to have this process complete by Wednesday, but some the bodies will take longer to identify," he said in a media release on Wednesday after criticism form the family at the delay.

"I expect to be able to return the majority of the bodies to the families by this evening."

Identification of the victims after a mass fatality event isn't a quick or easy process. A team of experts, including police, DVI experts, NZDF pathologists, specially trained dentists, forensic photographers, and fingerprint and scene specialists, is working around the clock so the bodies can be returned.

In order to make a positive identification of the victims, New Zealand follows the Interpol procedures for DVI. Methods used to identify the victims include fingerprints, dental records and DNA profiling.

How does victim identification work? 


The scene phase

First the victims need to be recovered from the fatality site. Their bodies are examined and documented at the scene, then numbered and taken to the mortuary site.

"DVI officers must ensure that everyone is accounted for and each deceased victim is afforded the appropriate respect and attention," Australian police experts say.

Post-mortem phase

Once the bodies have been removed from the site, a post mortem examination may be carried out.

The bodies will be examined by specialists to establish the cause of death and the identity of the deceased.

"All personal belongings (such as clothing and jewellery) are taken off and examined. Items are photographed and cleaned, then photographed again," the New Zealand Police Association says.

After this the body examined for evidence by the pathologist, forensic dentist, fingerprint officer and the Police DVI team.

"Such evidence may include; dental examinations, finger prints, DNA profiling, visual indications such as tattoos or scars and x-rays," Australian police experts say.

"In line with Interpol protocol visual identification alone is not considered appropriate as a form of identification. Scientific testing must be carried out ensuring that each deceased victim is identified prior to being released to their families."

Ante-mortem phase

In this stage, specialists will work with family members of the deceased to help with the identification.

"It will include questions about the description of the missing person, jewellery, clothing and other personal items they may have had with them," Australian police say.

"They may also ask family members to submit DNA samples so that a familial relationship can be established. Details of the missing person's medical and dental information including the names and locations of dentists and doctors would also be helpful."

Reconciliation phase

Once the post-mortem and ante-mortem details have been collected, specialists will combine the information to find a match.

Once this is done, the identification information will be passed on to the Coroner who will make the final determination and decide when the body can be released to the family.

Why does it take so long?


Bush says police have "important obligations" to ensure the bodies are identified correctly.

"We must work on behalf of the Coroner to ensure we have the correct identification. It would be unforgivable to return the wrong body to a family," he says.

"Secondly correct identification is required as part of the investigation and is necessary to prove a charge of murder."


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