A familiar scene: Bodies press against the crime scene tape, peering at the one beyond.
"Is it -"
"I don't know," you answer.
"You've got to tell me."
"I can't. Stay back," you say.
"F**k that! I have to know if that's my cousin!"
It's the crime scene stand-off.
It's a situation that most cops will have to deal with at some time in their career, that disconcerting moment in time when you're expected to somehow keep the peace, act calm, and conduct yourself professionally while protecting the integrity of your crime scene.
Often, this last line of defense is made with little more than some flimsy yellow tape separating your victim from his friends, family, and grandstanding looky-loos trying to make a name for themselves.
It is from such throngs that undesirables have been known to hurdle or limbo crime scene tape with a decathlete's ease, destroying evidence and generally undermining the efforts of field personnel, detectives, and forensic investigators.
While a portable electrified force field would go a long way toward retaining the integrity of well defined parameters, it's not the kind of touchy-feely thing we're going for in this day and age.
And it's true that we do need to have some empathy for what's going through loved ones' minds, especially during moments of uncertainty. Sometimes, the emotions on display are genuine. Sometimes, it's genuine drama, the grandstanding of some passing cretin who suddenly becomes a best buddy to the deceased when there's an audience to be had.
The thing is, you can't be consulting some checklist determining the validity of a person's concern. You have to assume it's genuine. That's why when trying to retain your crime scene and your sanity, you need to consider a few things.
First, set up a large perimeter for your scene. As one LASD homicide detective notes, "One thing I tell new guys about scenes is that you're not going to screw one up by making it too big. Guys are a little hesitant because of traffic; they're just a little bit shy about making a scene a little bit larger than they were anticipating. And almost without fail, you find physical evidence outside the scene's perimeter. That's just the way it works. It's just a common error."
A large crime scene has the collateral benefit of putting greater distance between the body and the gathering throng - thereby making it less agitating for them to recognize the victim, let alone become further upset because of the trauma - but it'll inhibited them that much more at trying to get inside the tape: That's a helluva of distance to cover at the risk of being tased.
Second, put up visual obscurements. You don't want a loved one recognizing the purple and gold Nikes on the body if you can help it.
Products such as Scene Screen have the collateral benefit of keeping journalist photos at bay, too. Just because if it bleeds, it leads, doesn't mean you have to accommodate photographers with a nice sanguinary photo.
Next, stall for time. If the person is a possible relative of the deceased, have him or her convene at a centralized location with other relatives where they can all be notified at once. Consider having a church chaplain available nearby to help deal with the bereaved.
Fourth, explain to them that you're trying to ensure justice for their loved one. That preservation of the scene is paramount for gathering potential evidence and not allowing a defense attorney to call in questions about your competency - think O.J. - elsewhere. Their grief is not going to disappear overnight; it'll be there later when the case goes to trial. The last thing they'll want is the knowledge that they helped their loved one's killer escape justice.