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New Crime Scenes - Same Old Problems

By: George Schiro, MS, F-ABC
Tel: 337-322-2724
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In 1989, I heard Dr. Henry Lee speak at a homicide conference in Metairie, Louisiana. Dr. Lee is currently the Connecticut Department of Public Safety Commissioner and, perhaps, the most famous forensic scientist in the world. He said that the same problems we were encountering at crime scenes in 1989 were the same problems that we encountered at crime scenes for the past 30 years. In the ten years since I heard his talk, I've observed that, while evidence collection and crime scene investigation education has increased, we are still encountering these same problems. These problems aren't unique to any single law enforcement agency, but they can be found in many departments, large or small, rural or urban throughout the United States and the world. In this issue's column, I will address some of these problems.

The first problem and the root cause of many other problems encountered in crime scene investigations, is the lack of administrative policies dealing with a specialized operation like crime scene preservation and investigation. The chief administrator of a law enforcement agency must develop and enforce workable rules that will allow the crime scene to be preserved and allow the detectives and crime scene investigators to do their jobs properly. For more information on this subject, dig through your back issues of Southern Lawman Magazine and refer to my column, "Administrative Policies Dealing with Crime Scene Operations" in the Spring 1999 issue. If these policies would be put in place, then most of the crime scene problems that we have encountered will be eliminated.

The biggest problem encountered in crime scene investigations is too many non-essential personnel in the scene. Unfortunately, the bulk of these non-essential personnel are often police officers. Once the scene has been stabilized and the victim is either removed from the scene or declared dead at the scene, then everyone, including police officers, must be removed from the scene as soon as possible. The scene must be secured until the detectives and crime scene investigators arrive. Until they arrive, no one, including sightseeing police officers regardless of rank, should be allowed to go in the scene. Non-essential personnel will either inadvertently disrupt some portion of the crime scene or they will give the impression that something has been disrupted. One of the most popular lines used by defense attorneys and the media during a trial is that the police contaminated, disrupted, tainted, or otherwise screwed up the crime scene. By eliminating the non-essential personnel in the scene and controlling the scene once the situation is stable, then the police contamination statement has no validity.

Another major problem is the lack of communication at crime scenes. The first responding officers must report everything they have observed including their actions at the scene, the paramedics' actions, the victim's actions, the suspect's actions, and any other actions taken at the scene. This information must be communicated to the detectives and crime scene investigators. The detectives and crime scene investigators must work and communicate with the coroner's or medical examiner's investigators, so they can properly perform their job when dealing with a deceased individual. In turn, the pathologist who conducts the autopsy must communicate his or her findings to the detectives, crime scene investigators, and forensic scientists in the crime lab. The detectives and crime scene investigators must also communicate with the forensic scientists so that the evidence can be analyzed properly to obtain the maximum amount of information in the investigation. The forensic scientist must give the results of the analyses to the detectives so that the investigation can be completed. Finally, everyone involved in the case must have a two way communication with the district attorney's office. Lack of communication can hamper the final disposition of a case.

The way mistakes are sometimes handled at a crime scene is a problem and this can lead to bigger problems, including perceptions of cover-ups and conspiracy. Mistakes at a crime scene are inevitable. The best we can do is to minimize the mistakes made at crime scenes through proper education and training. Each processed crime scene should be internally critiqued by each participant. This is so he or she can learn from any mistakes made at the scene and look for ways of improving the next crime scene investigations. Each crime scene should be a learning experience.

If you make a mistake at a crime scene, own up to it at the beginning. Don't try to cover it up. Be honest about it and report it to the person in charge. If the mistake is fixable, then rectify it, but if you have altered the scene in any way, don't try to recreate that scene. A scene can never be recreated and any attempt to do so could result in subtle and unconscious changes that might affect the outcome of the investigation. If the scene is recreated, then it becomes a cover-up. If someone else sees you do it or helps you recreate it, then it becomes a conspiracy.

An example is the movement of a weapon at a scene. Suppose an officer accidentally picks up a weapon and moves it prior to the weapon having been photographed. The officer should not go back and attempt to recreate the original position of the weapon. The officer should notify whoever is processing the scene and then someone should include in a report that the weapon was not photographed in its original position because it had been moved prior to being photographed. The weapon should then be collected. A crime scene investigator should photograph and document the scene as he or she finds it, no matter what has been moved prior to his or her arrival.

Another common problem encountered in crime scene investigations is that no one checks the floor or the ground prior to entering the scene. Detectives and crime scene investigators should examine the ground using oblique or side lighting so that shoeprints and other evidence that end up on the ground can be more easily visualized and preserved. This should be done even if a million people have been in the scene. For more information, check out my column entitled "Shoeprint Evidence - Trampled Underfoot" in the last issue of Southern Lawman Magazine.

Too few photographs taken of a scene is a problem that is also still encountered. The crime scene photographer has only one chance to thoroughly document the crime scene. The photographer should capture that scene and evidence from as many angles as possible. Film is cheap so use as much as you feel necessary. Some departments are switching to digital cameras. Do not use a digital camera or a point and shoot camera for crime scene documentation. Some aspects of crime scene investigation require extremely detailed close-ups. This cannot be accomplished with the current generation of digital cameras and the limited flash unit on the point and shoot cameras. A law enforcement agency must invest in good crime scene cameras and side mounted flash units. Training with the camera must also be provided by the agency.

By working to eliminate these major problems at crime scenes, law enforcement agencies will be more effective, have increased public confidence, and have more solid case investigations. The problems are easily identified and, if the proper leadership is in place, then these problems are easily rectified. We can and must learn from our mistakes. Hopefully, the next ten years of crime scene investigation will be conducted so well that no one will ever again have to mention the past 40 years of the same old crime scene problems.

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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