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Crime Scenes: To Preserve and Protect

One of the most important jobs of the first responder is to preserve the crime scene and protect the evidence.

February 01, 2010  |  by - Also by this author

Flexibility, Adaptability, and Common Sense

If ever there is a situation that may call for flexibility, it is a homicide scene. Sgt. Dave Johnson of the San Diego Police Department's homicide unit notes that blind anal retentive adherence can unwittingly complicate the situation.    Continued on page 40

"If you're at the beach and the tide is coming up and you're facing the decision of letting the ocean wash the evidence away or not, you may want to take a picture of its original location then collect it as best you can," Johnson explains. "People get so afraid of contaminating evidence because it's a crime scene that they allow it to override their common sense. What's the option? Let it get washed away? You need to be able to prioritize. You may be able to get witnesses first, or collect evidence-or flip-flop that."

Geberth describes a volatile situation in which patrol officers must take action long before homicide investigators arrive on scene.

"You go into a social club where there's been a shooting," he says. "You temporarily have everybody neutralized. What are you going to do? Leave the guns on the floor and see who catches them first? No, you're going to secure the weapons. Oh, we didn't get a picture of it. Well, too bad you didn't get a picture of it. I have five or six combatants temporarily neutralized; I'm not going to leave the evidence in place before somebody grabs it, it disappears, gets lost or contaminated. So I picked it up and I took it. That's just common sense."

According to Newman, such common sense can be in short supply at a crime scene.

"We had two scenarios, both involving officers having to react to shooting scenes and inclement weather," Newman says. "One was an indoor homicide during a northeaster storm where there was also evidence outside in the front driveway and yard. The officer observed a cartridge casing outside and a mutilated spent bullet. Water was creeping up to the house at such a rapid pace that he had to react instead of waiting for investigators to get there. Using a digital camera, he took two mid-range photographs and two close-up photographs of the evidence as they lay on the grass then recovered them and placed them in his pocket, which is OK to do. Ultimately that evidence that he'd documented and recovered was used to reconstruct that scene and link the suspect to what took place.

"The other scenario involved narcotics investigators in the middle of a buy/bust in a parking lot that went south and resulted in a shooting with three suspects and three officers shot. A storm was approaching, and there were casings and handguns scattered literally everywhere. So officers that first arrived on scene were able to use spray paint cans to mark the locations on the pavement where the cartridge casings were recovered and they used numbers that corresponded to the evidence envelopes that the casings were placed in (#1, #2, #3, etc.). We were able to reconstruct the scene the next day when the weather cleared up because of that."

Professionalism at Crime Scenes

How you conduct yourself at a crime scene is a collateral concern. And as LASD homicide detective Paul Mondry notes, patrol officers can unwittingly complicate an investigation.

"Conversations, loose tongues, things that are said can all be a problem," Mondry says. "I had a murder investigation where comments made by the officers were overheard by people and led to speculation. It took on its own life when the papers were reporting things that didn't occur, citing it almost like it was gospel. In reality, it was just people who couldn't keep their mouths shut."

Things can get volatile on the front lines, and it helps to have sufficient manpower and a game plan in place.

"We're in the communication business," explains Lillienfeld. "Sometimes people are going to listen to you when you try to explain to them why you just can't let them touch or even see their loved one because of the transfer of evidence. You have to give them the big picture: 'Our job isn't going to just end here, and your grief isn't going to just end here. A week or a year from now, we're going to be in court and we're going to have hell to pay if I let you go hug your loved one.'

"Sometimes patrol cops have a hard time explaining that to people, even people who are calm and rational and not going crazy. Sometimes we don't take the time to do that."

Geberth also understands the emotions encountered at homicides. "There's a lot of tension, a lot of emotion, and a lot of anger. They scream, 'I want to see my son! I want to see my son!' My answer was always to say, 'Listen, I understand that you want to see your son. But I think under the circumstances that you should remember him the way that he was in life because right now this is not a good thing to see.' And that would work."

Clergy members are accustomed to dealing with bereaved individuals, and can serve as a buffer. Consider having one on hand.

Talk to the Detectives

You can do the best job containing the crime scene and still see your efforts prove for naught. Crime lab technicians have contaminated evidence with their own DNA. Homicide investigators have ignored pertinent evidence. Prosecutors have dropped the ball.

All you can do is what's expected of you-no more, no less.

How will you know you've succeeded? Some homicide investigators are more forthcoming than others. Geberth made a habit of writing commendations for uniform personnel who did a good job.

But not every investigator is so conscientious when it comes to dealing with the uniformed street cop, which is why prior to leaving the scene, you may want to take the initiative and ask them for suggestions for the future. Because while they might not otherwise say a word to you, they may nonetheless make comments behind your back.

Besides, as any investigator will tell you, while it's fine to count on dumb luck and dumber criminals, it's better counting on smart cops.

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Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

dickdewey @ 2/23/2010 1:25 PM

Very good article supporting what 1st responders should know. Also a very timely article as I teach Criminalistics which has a chapter on 1st responder's responsibilities. Great job and keep up the great work.

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