Photo courtesy of Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office Forensics Unit.
Crime scene investigators (CSIs) are an integral part of all law enforcement investigations. But sometimes it seems the public is more aware of this fact than law enforcement officers. The term "CSI" was brought into the public mainstream consciousness with TV shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (2000‒present) and its spin-offs "CSI: Miami"(2002‒2012) and "CSI: New York" (2004‒present), as well as "NCIS" (2003-present), which shows naval intelligence investigators doing most of their own crime scene processing. By watching these types of television shows, the public has learned a great deal about what CSI does and its inherent value in law enforcement investigations and, in doing so, has learned to appreciate CSI's role.
As for responding officers, the question for us becomes twofold. First, do we appreciate the importance of CSI's role and, second (oftentimes more important), do we appreciate the importance of our own role in crime scene handling and processing? I believe the answer to these two parallel questions will lead patrol officers toward a better understanding of and a higher standard for their role in crime scene investigation.
CSIs are Worthy of Respect
To answer the first question, "Do we appreciate the importance of CSI's role?"we need to ask if we respect CSIs and what they do. True respect is always earned and perhaps knowing a bit more about CSIs will help out. Although they don't generally go to a police academy, their training requirements are as stringent if not more so than ours. For example, in order for a CSI candidate to be considered for employment in the Forensics Unit at my agency, one must possess a four-year degree preferably in a physical science. Along with other strict criteria, an ideal candidate would also have experience from an internship within the field.
Most agencies require that CSI candidates receive specialized training in bloodstain pattern analysis, shooting reconstruction, crime scene photography, latent print processing, buried bodies, death investigation, digital evidence, trace evidence collection, DNA collection, and more.
My agency, the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office, recently instituted a DNA pre-screening laboratory that is currently staffed by three technicians. They have spent more than 500 hours in a collaborative training program with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Orlando Regional Operations Center Biology Section. This training has included instruction in proper evidence handling, cross-contamination reduction procedures, chemical testing methods for various biological substances, and appropriate sampling techniques. This is on top of what these technicians already do. The point here is that CSIs are highly trained, have worked hard to get where they are, and are worthy of our respect and cooperation.
Some Tips So We Can Do Better
It is very difficult if not impossible to win a case without good evidence. To answer the second question, "Do we appreciate the importance of our own role in crime scene handling and processing?" we need to focus on what responding officers are supposed to do. Our involvement easily breaks down into two types: the scenes we protect for someone else to come and process and the ones we process ourselves.
Whether you are holding or processing the scene, you need to remember that it is an active investigation and you can't afford to miss anything. It's not about waiting until CSI arrives so you can go eat or throw around some fingerprint powder to make the complainant happy. You have to give securing the scene and processing the scene equal importance.
In addition to reflecting upon my own experiences, I asked several subject matter experts for their opinions and came up with these tips for your consideration. They are presented here in no special order:
1. Do not touch or move anything at the scene. If you are not going to process the scene yourself, the best advice from CSI personnel is to secure it and leave it alone. The highest value collected evidence can have is that it has been untouched or tampered with except by the suspect. If something has to be moved (exigent circumstance), please let a detective or CSI know so that it can be documented properly. If you do have to move it, consider taking a photo of the item as you observed it before moving it. Pictures from multiple angles also help a great deal.
2. Please don't leave your own trash on the scene. This includes spitting out your gum, leaving behind your empty water bottles/coffee cups, used tissues from blowing your nose, or dropping your used gloves. Contaminating the scene in any way hurts your case.
3. Keep bystanders out of the crime scene. That includes your own employees that are not actively involved in the investigation. Anyone entering the scene is subject to generating a supplemental report and testifying in court. Though every agency has a few supervisors who think they are an exception, they need to remember they're not. Put them on your crime scene log anyway. They need to realize not to play if they're not willing to pay; falsifying any part of your crime scene investigation will only come out later in court.
4. Please be cautious where you are stepping. If you walk into blood or infectious fluids, make sure you disinfect your boots/shoes before you get into your vehicle. You don't want to transfer potentially bio-hazardous pathogens to anyone, especially your family. If you don't carry any disinfectant/cleaning solutions in your vehicle, ask for some from your on scene CSI or firefighter personnel.
5. CSI civilians. Remember that civilian CSIs are non-sworn and they don't carry guns. CSIs are focused on processing the scene and nothing else. During critical investigations they count on you for scene security, which includes having their backs. If they are processing inside a house or working in the backyard, you can't cover them if you are sitting in your car texting your girlfriend or playing on the Internet. This is especially true at night.
6. Communicate with your CSIs. Don't assume that when CSIs arrive on scene they know what's going on. An on-scene briefing by the incident commander or lead officer is critical for their understanding the depth and nature of the crime scene. It gives them the direction they need to get started.
7. If at all possible, help out on the scene. For example, if your CSIs are processing an extensive scene for latent prints, ask them if you can help. Don't just leave when they get there either. Sometimes they need help with metal detecting, sifting through dirt, searching for projectiles/casings, or other similar tasks. Evidence collection and processing can be so much more productive if everyone works together as a team.
8. Come to the office and talk with the CSIs. This is especially true for new officers or detectives. If you have questions or need help, CSIs are always available to assist you. They would much rather you ask a question or get help from them than lose valuable evidence.
9. Please take more photos. In the age of digital cameras, you can take a large number of pictures, transfer the media, and have a fresh start for the next scene. The key here is the more pictures you take the better. Years down the road when a case goes to trial those photos may be the only evidence your case has. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words aptly applies here.
10. Packaging. This is one of the few areas in which being creative can hurt you. Please follow your agency's policy and procedure. Do this task the way you were taught during your orientation and FTO programs. Remember to wear gloves, label the packaging accordingly, and seal the packaging with clearly marked evidence tape. Chain of custody is also critical here. If you collect it but pass it on to someone else, you have to clearly show this.
Make it Stick
When we work the street, we tend to get so wrapped up in trying to catch the bad guy, we forget about the rest of the job. Everything we do includes paperwork and crime scene investigation. Making an arrest is just the first part of the process. What's the point if you can't make it stick later? Crime scene handling and processing is that something we use to help make it stick.
Don't be that officer who loses in court because you screwed up some element of the crime scene or evidence handling. It won't go well for you the following day in your patrol captain's office. Therefore I will sum this article up for you in four words: We are all CSIs.
Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has over 25 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.
Crime Scenes: To Preserve and Protect