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Crime Scene Response for the Patrol Officer

The actions you take as a first responder can determine the value of crime scene evidence for investigators and prosecutors.

January 01, 2006  |  by David Spraggs

Keeping Records

Patrol officers must be assigned to watch the outer perimeter because people—both police and the general public—have a way of ignoring the yellow tape. These same perimeter security officers should also maintain a crime scene log, recording every time that personnel enter and exit the scene.

Depending on your agency’s procedures, the scene will be handed over to detectives or crime scene investigators. Provide these personnel with a detailed account of the scene and the actions taken to protect the evidence.

And that brings me to a key point. The most important components of patrol crime scene response are observation and report-writing. You have the responsibility to document all of your actions and observations. Things like lighting, room temperature, and noticeable odors can all change rapidly within a crime scene.

Patrol officers should also note specific times, including arrival time, the time the scene was secured, the time medical personnel entered, the time the victim was removed, and other key events at the crime scene. A thorough and detailed report helps show that you secured and maintained the crime scene to the best of your ability. This will make it harder for a defense attorney to challenge the crime scene evidence in court.

David Spraggs is an investigator and firearms instructor with the Boulder (Colo.) Police Department. He teaches forensic photography and crime scene investigation and serves on the Police Advisory Board.



Because there’s so much to do as a crime scene first responder, a checklist can help you ensure that all necessary steps have been taken. The following checklist is presented as a guideline only. Each agency should develop a list that’s geared to its specific requirements.

Arrival and Assessment
• Establish perimeter and secure area.
• Render aid to victims and ensure scene is safe for medical personnel.
• Coordinate arriving units.
• Record names and unit numbers of fire/rescue, medical personnel, and LEOs on scene.
• Remove unnecessary personnel from scene as soon as possible.
• Assign officer to escort or ride with victim to hospital
    - Secure clothing and evidence.
    - Obtain tape recorded statement, if possible.
• Initial assessment. Does this appear to be a crime? If so, what type of crime.
• Assign officer to suspect.
    - Assess need for immediate suspect arrest.
    Does probable cause exist?
    - Is evidence present on the suspect?
    Collect perishable evidence from suspect
    if exigency exists.
    - Is it necessary to bag hands, etc?

Establishing Command
• Designate command. Who’s in charge?
• Designate common radio channel for all arriving personnel.

Stabilize and Secure Scene
• Clear crime scene and establish clearly delineated perimeter with crime scene tape.
    - Record time.
    - Make scene bigger than it needs to be.
     -Create one entry/exit point in scene to
        reduce contamination.
• Assign crime scene security personnel and start detailed crime scene access log.
• Begin initial areas canvass. Assign officers tolocate witnesses, separate witnesses, and obtain initial statements from witnesses.
• If required, assign personnel to search immediate area for additional evidence or crime scenes.
• Establish a command post and staging area.
    - Incident command vehicle available?
    - Building or home nearby?
    - Secure area for equipment and evidence?
    - Bathroom facilities?
• Obtain case number. Have number broadcast by communications/dispatch.

• Detective supervisor paged.
• Coroner paged.
• Public information officer/media relations paged.
• Management staff paged.
• Victim Services paged.

• Key witnesses separated, officer assigned, witnesses secured or transported to police department.
• Obtain voluntary written statements.
• Suspect/s secured, transported.
• Given Miranda warning?
• Record any spontaneous statements/utterances made by suspect—tape record if possible.
• Perishable evidence protected from elements or tampering.
• Photograph overall area of scene.
• Create staging and briefing area for media.

Transfer of Command
• Meet and brief detective supervisor and other personnel.
• Help determine need for warrant.
• Help prepare initial statement for press release.
• Direct all patrol personnel to complete detailed reports as soon as possible.
• Logistics covered.
    - Do you need more equipment, personnel, etc., to respond?
• Meet with crime scene investigators to discuss scene and evidence.
• Transfer command to detective supervisor.

In preparation for writing this article I polled about a
hundred detectives from various law enforcement agencies in my county. The following summarizes the responses I received regarding what to do and what not to do as a crime scene first responder:

What Not to Do
• Don’t smoke in or near the scene. Besides potentially contaminating other physical evidence, it can ruin a K-9’s chance of tracking a suspect or locating additional evidence through scent.
• Don’t eat or drink in a scene. If you need to eat or drink, do it in your patrol car, in the incident command vehicle, or at some other location outside of the scene.
• Don’t use the bathroom at a crime scene. I’ve collected toilet paper, fecal material, condoms, and swabs from toilets. They can provide useful physical evidence in certain cases.
• Don’t allow command staff or other non-
essential personnel to walk through the scene. This is not appropriate before the scene is processed. It’s
useful for first responders to snap digital pictures of the scene that can be viewed by other non-essential personnel.
• Don’t laugh or look like you’re having too much fun at a scene. It just looks unprofessional.
• Don’t forget to think about secondary scenes.
• Don’t prematurely handle evidence within the scene—wait for crime scene personnel.
• Don’t replace evidence if it’s been moved. For example, if medical personnel had to move a table, don’t move the table back into position. Simply note that the table was moved and leave it alone.
• Don’t use the phone within the scene.
• Don’t use the trash can in the scene as a trash receptacle for your garbage. Trash cans often hold physical evidence.

Preserve the Scene
Make the scene much bigger than you think you have to. Remember, you can always shrink a scene but you can never make it bigger.
• Establish one point of entry and exit into the scene to minimize contamination.
• Limit access to non-essential personnel.
• Keep an accurate and detailed record of your actions and observations.
• Write a detailed report including accurate times.
• Protect perishable evidence by any means necessary. For example, cover a footwear impression with a plastic container if it starts to rain or snow.

Finally, I would suggest attending as much crime scene training as possible. And it’s a good idea to seek feedback from detectives, crime scene investigators, and others involved in the case. They can help you learn more about preserving crime scenes.

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