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Administrative Policies Dealing with Crime Scene Operations

By: George Schiro, MS, F-ABC
Tel: 337-322-2724
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Reference Citation: Schiro, G. Administrative Policies Dealing with Crime Scene Operations. Southern Lawman Magazine, Spring 1999

Here's a quiz for sheriffs, police chiefs, and other high ranking administrators in law enforcement organizations. Question 1: Suppose there is a hostage situation and the SWAT team is in place. Would you allow other non-SWAT police officers to interfere with the SWAT operations? Question 2: Suppose there is a hazardous material spill that a HAZ-MAT team is attempting to clean-up. Would you allow any non-HAZ-MAT police officers to unnecessarily expose themselves to potentially dangerous chemicals? Hopefully, you answered no to both questions (if you answered yes to either question, then check yourself in to the nearest police academy for remedial training). People without specialized training must not interfere with officers trained to handle specialized operations.

One specialized operation that is routinely abused is the crime scene operation. From small police departments to large law enforcement agencies, the biggest problem with crime scene operations is the presence and interference of non-essential personnel at the scene. The law enforcement agency's administration should deal with this and other crime scene investigation problems through effective crime scene management. This management begins with the highest ranking police officer in a department and carries through to the greenest rookies. Through well thought-out, written policies, evidence can be preserved, cases can be less vulnerable to criticism, and the public will have more faith in the agency's crime scene operations.

A crime scene policy should first establish who is in charge of a crime scene. The first responding officer(s) should be the crime scene "commander(s)" in charge of the scene until the arrival of the detectives or crime scene investigators. The lead detective or crime scene investigator would then be a logical choice to direct crime scene operations. He or she should be the person with absolute authority over the crime scene. All relevant information should be filtered through the crime scene commander and no one should enter the crime scene or take any action without approval from the crime scene commander. This includes any non-essential, higher ranking officers, patrolmen, and other curiosity seekers. In these cases, the sheriff, chief deputies, police chief, and/or superintendent must all lead by example. No matter how heinous, high profile, politically charged, or unusual the crime scene, the upper echelon of the department should evaluate their effectiveness at the scene, show restraint, and not set foot in the scene until the crime scene commander gives his or her approval.

The next aspect of the policy should back up the crime scene commander's authority by limiting the number of people who may enter a crime scene. Any first responding officer, detective, or crime scene investigator would be hesitant about asking a friend and/or a higher ranking officer to leave the crime scene unless there is a strict, written in stone, enforceable departmental policy giving the crime scene commander authority to limit the number of people entering a crime scene. This would be a major step to eliminating certain forms of evidence contamination and personal safety hazards at a crime scene.

A policy of providing training to all law enforcement officers on the recognition and preservation of various types of evidence should also be in place. Every officer has the potential to be the first responding officer at a crime scene. This officer must be able to recognize evidence and preserve it properly until the crime scene specialists arrive. All law enforcement officers must also be prepared to document and collect any evidence in danger of being lost or destroyed. They should also document any actions taken which may have inadvertently affected the evidence. The best way to accomplish departmental wide training on recognition and preservation of evidence is through in-service training by the department's people who specialize in crime scene operations. If a smaller department doesn't have crime scene specialists, then, training can be provided by a neighboring, larger department that does have crime scene specialists. For infusions of fresh ideas, departments should also take advantage of any free or low cost training available outside of the department.

Communication outside the department is another area that a law enforcement organization should address with policy. Successful investigations rely heavily on the cooperation of many individuals. The first responding officers must communicate with the detectives who must communicate with the crime scene investigators and the coroner/medical examiner's office, all of whom must communicate with the crime lab. These people must also communicate with the district attorney's office. Local, state, and federal authorities must also communicate and cooperate in certain investigations. Written policy should be in effect to allow unrestricted, necessary communication between these parties. In order for an investigation to succeed, all political or personal feelings must be set aside during a crime scene operation.

Another way that administrators can facilitate crime scene operations is through policies that allow the investigators as much time as necessary to properly work a crime scene. The investigators should not feel rushed to get through a crime scene. I advocate a "slow and methodical approach" to crime scene investigation. By utilizing well staffed, multiple crime scene teams or depending on a larger agency's crime scene teams, an agency's crime scene resources will not be stretched thin. This will allow the crime scene team to properly work a crime scene in a reasonable amount of time. Another way for an agency to get maximum impact from their crime scene team is to provide all road officers with fingerprint kits, cameras, and training. These officers can then handle "minor" property crimes which will free the crime scene investigators to handle the "major" crimes.

Finally, a crime scene policy should be in place to directly address crime scene personnel. Law enforcement agencies should make it a policy to recruit motivated, committed people for its crime scene investigators. As with any job, people who take pride in their work are going to perform better than those who look at it as just another job. Crime scene investigation is one area that you will want people who are motivated to keep up with new developments in the field and who will practice their skills to stay sharp. Mediocrity and complacency are detrimental to crime scene operations. A crime scene investigator needs to be a skilled and meticulous photographer, artist, camcorder operator, technician, and scientist. The crime scene investigator should be as logical as Star Trek's Mr. Spock and as original as Picasso. That's a pretty tall order. An agency may not find someone with all of these characteristics, but they still should be able to find good people who will work hard on becoming outstanding crime scene investigators.

In order for crime scene investigators to improve their skills, the crime scene personnel policy should provide for so many hours of funded formal and informal continuing education per year. The crime scene investigators should be encouraged to join the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, a national organization of crime scene investigators, and/or the International Association for Identification. These organizations have much to offer in the way of continuing education and workshops.

The policy should also allow the investigators to use their departmental crime scene cameras and camcorders during off-hours to film and photograph family events. Of course, this should be done with certain restrictions. The investigators should have to provide their own film and videotape as well as pay the cost of any processing. They should also be held responsible for damages to the equipment incurred during off-hours use. By allowing them to use the equipment more often, they will learn more about the equipment, its capabilities, and its limitations. Their skills will greatly improve the more they have access to and use the equipment.

By creating these policies or improving upon existing ones, higher quality crime scene investigations will be the pay off. The law enforcement agency will have greater public support and confidence, more effective cases, and more efficient investigations as a result of proper attention to the crime scene operations.

George Schiro is a Consulting Forensic Chemist and DNA Technical Leader. His duties include incorporating the DNA Advisory Board (DAB) standards, accountability for the technical operations of the lab's biology section, conducting DNA analysis using the 13 STR core loci in casework, DNA research, forensic science training and crime scene investigation.

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