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Investigating Death

Learning the proper procedures to maintaining an organized and efficient death scene.

May 01, 1997  |  by Gerald W. Garner

Do an Initial Assessment

Immediately upon your arrival, give the scene a once- over and ascertain what sorts of resources, most particularly manpower, you require to handle it effectively. Consider, for instance:

How many victims am I dealing with?

Is the suspect still present or nearby?

How many witnesses are there, and what are they saying happened?

Is there still a chance that the victim might be saved, and will paramedics be removing him or her from the scene?

Is the scene relatively isolated or is it spread out over a large area? Is it indoors or outdoors?

Is there readily detectable but short-lived evidence present? Can it be protected in-place? Consider taking photos, if possible, of transitory evidence. Use your imagination for protecting evidence in place. You might, for instance, put an open box over a footprint in the snow or mud.

What actually appears to have happened here?

Am I dealing with an apparent crime or something else?

If there is a missing suspect, how about him? What is his description and other particulars? This information needs to be broadcast to your fellow officers as soon as possible. Also, have an assisting officer record the tags of vehicles still parked in the area. One just might lead to your suspect.

What don't I know about this scene that could pose additional problems?

Keep asking questions and seeking answers the whole time you are on-scene. Do not hesitate to alter your initial assessment and responses as the situation becomes more clear or otherwise changes.

Get Plenty of Help

Your first assessment should give you some idea of what kind of assistance you will need, and how must of it. Don't be timid about summoning all of the help you think you'll require. You can always send some of it back into service if it's truly not needed. Your decision regarding assistance will depend upon, among other things, the number of players you are dealing with, including witnesses and suspects to be identified and interviewed. The size and complexity of the scene also will have to be considered. The more spread out the area you want sealed off, the more people you will need.

Even if you are extremely pressed for personnel resources, you probably want at least an assist officer to aid you on a death scene. He or she may end up guarding the scene and corralling the players while you interview the key participants and commence your investigation. If you have a suspect in custody or a victim who has been removed from the scene by paramedics, you'll also want an officer to stay with each. (Remember to separate potential witnesses, where feasible.) Get what you need early on.

Use some of your on-scene helpers to conduct a door-to-door canvass of the neighborhood to find anyone who knows anything about incident or the participants. Those interviewed should be identified by name, date of birth, address and telephone number in police reports. Addresses where no one was home or no one would cooperate also should be noted for follow- up efforts.

Your on-scene assessment also may identify the need for specialized help. If the victim might be sill alive, you'll need paramedics right away. If he's not, you eventually will need a representative of the medical examiner's staff or the coroner's office. Depending upon your agency's protocols, you also may be responsible for calling a crime scene technician, your supervisor, a district attorney's representative and a follow- up investigator to the scene.

Be sure you are aware of your department's policies and procedures for these calls and follow them carefully. That, too, will help assure a smooth investigative process.

Deal with the Victims

Obviously, a still-living victim must be transported quickly by paramedics. If this is the case, before he is removed from the scene, attempt to ask him the identity of the person who caused the injuries. If the person is not known by name, try to obtain a physical description. If it's not possible to get a picture of the victim before he is removed (it frequently won't be), draw yourself a quick sketch of how you found him in relation to the rest of the scene.

Have an assist officer remain with the living victim transport and at the hospital (including in the operating room) to seize evidentiary items (like clothing or projectiles) and note any statements or dying declarations. If possible, photos of wounds or injuries also can be taken at the hospital before treatment alters or covers them. Paramedics and hospital personnel also need to be queried about any statements they may have overheard. All of this must, of course, be documented.

If the victim is dead, there should be no rush in removing him from the scene. Photos should be taken of his positioning and a diagram made showing the position of the body and its precise distances from other objects at the scene.

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