A street lamp on the center median marks the beginning of the quadrant. The officer starts there, pacing back to the other posts he's designated for himself. Letting the spool unroll, he loops the yellow evidence tape around the street lamp, under a bumper, over a mailbox, and through a picket fence. There is a pretense of familiarity in his attempts, the affected ease becoming more credible with each successive effort. Taking out a knife, he cuts the tape and ties it off back at the street lamp. The haphazard knots hold.
Just beyond the tape, gawkers give non-committal appraisals of the officer's efforts before settling back on the body of the young man on the ground. The officer lifts a section of the tape as the paramedics wheel the still clean and empty stretcher beneath it. Once cleared, the tape is dropped behind the procession. It sags a little closer to the ground.
The containment of a crime scene is a task that falls eventually on most cops-some with considerable frequency-and it usually starts as a baptism by fire.
Unfortunately, considering its import, relatively little crime scene preservation training has historically been given to officers. Yet the success of many a criminal prosecution can be traced back to how the first officers who responded handled the crime scene.
When it comes to recognizing what constitutes a well-preserved crime scene, few are more in a position to pass judgment than those who ultimately handle them: homicide investigators. Often, they show up long after you, the uniformed officer, have arrived on scene and coordinated its containment.
What makes for a good crime scene containment? What are the challenges you may face? And what do homicide investigators wish you knew?
Identifying What You Have
The crime scene can become a study in conflicting agendas. EMS services may have a shot at saving a life. Officers may have to clear adjacent rooms. Panicked or distraught witnesses may disrupt your evidence by taking flight. The haphazard clearing of an area and the assumption that suspects have vacated have proven problematic for Mark Lillienfeld, senior detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's homicide bureau.
"We had a woman who was killed in front of a condominium," recalls Lillienfeld. "The house had already supposedly been cleared by patrol cops. Yet a second sweep from another group of deputies found another victim dead inside the house. It turned out there were two victims who had been killed by another neighbor.
Additional suspects-active participants, would-be getaway drivers-have all been found in and around crime scene containments in areas that supposedly had been cleared.