A familiar scene: Bodies press against the crime scene tape, peering at the one beyond.
"Is it -"
"I don't know," you answer.
"You've got to tell me."
"I can't. Stay back," you say.
"F**k that! I have to know if that's my cousin!"
It's the crime scene stand-off.
It's a situation that most cops will have to deal with at some time in their career, that disconcerting moment in time when you're expected to somehow keep the peace, act calm, and conduct yourself professionally while protecting the integrity of your crime scene.
Often, this last line of defense is made with little more than some flimsy yellow tape separating your victim from his friends, family, and grandstanding looky-loos trying to make a name for themselves.
It is from such throngs that undesirables have been known to hurdle or limbo crime scene tape with a decathlete's ease, destroying evidence and generally undermining the efforts of field personnel, detectives, and forensic investigators.
While a portable electrified force field would go a long way toward retaining the integrity of well defined parameters, it's not the kind of touchy-feely thing we're going for in this day and age.
And it's true that we do need to have some empathy for what's going through loved ones' minds, especially during moments of uncertainty. Sometimes, the emotions on display are genuine. Sometimes, it's genuine drama, the grandstanding of some passing cretin who suddenly becomes a best buddy to the deceased when there's an audience to be had.
The thing is, you can't be consulting some checklist determining the validity of a person's concern. You have to assume it's genuine. That's why when trying to retain your crime scene and your sanity, you need to consider a few things.
First, set up a large perimeter for your scene. As one LASD homicide detective notes, "One thing I tell new guys about scenes is that you're not going to screw one up by making it too big. Guys are a little hesitant because of traffic; they're just a little bit shy about making a scene a little bit larger than they were anticipating. And almost without fail, you find physical evidence outside the scene's perimeter. That's just the way it works. It's just a common error."
A large crime scene has the collateral benefit of putting greater distance between the body and the gathering throng - thereby making it less agitating for them to recognize the victim, let alone become further upset because of the trauma - but it'll inhibited them that much more at trying to get inside the tape: That's a helluva of distance to cover at the risk of being tased.
Second, put up visual obscurements. You don't want a loved one recognizing the purple and gold Nikes on the body if you can help it.
Products such as Scene Screen have the collateral benefit of keeping journalist photos at bay, too. Just because if it bleeds, it leads, doesn't mean you have to accommodate photographers with a nice sanguinary photo.
Next, stall for time. If the person is a possible relative of the deceased, have him or her convene at a centralized location with other relatives where they can all be notified at once. Consider having a church chaplain available nearby to help deal with the bereaved.
Fourth, explain to them that you're trying to ensure justice for their loved one. That preservation of the scene is paramount for gathering potential evidence and not allowing a defense attorney to call in questions about your competency - think O.J. - elsewhere. Their grief is not going to disappear overnight; it'll be there later when the case goes to trial. The last thing they'll want is the knowledge that they helped their loved one's killer escape justice.[PAGEBREAK]
Get Your Message Across
To get your message across and avoid shouting over everyone, pick the largest, loudest, or recognized leader of the throng and ask him or her to go off to the side and speak to you, one-on-one. If you believe that the person is on your side, empower him or her to act as your agent in communicating the need for scene integrity.
If push comes to shove - and sometimes it does - you may end up having to use force, even arrest a loved one.
One night a distraught father showed up at the scene of his son's murder and punched a deputy who'd prevented him from accessing the crime scene. Some force was effected and the man was arrested. Fortunately, neither the deputy nor the father was injured, and no criminal charges were brought against the father, who with the advantage of a day's reflection realized that we were acting on behalf of him, his son, and their family.
I'm not saying that we're meant to be punching bags, or to put up with other aggravations. But there are times when it's "no harm, no foul," and one should consider the spirit of the law in deciding what to do about distraught loved ones.
It Takes All Kinds
Remember, looky lous include our own. Cops are equally capable of tracking contaminants into a crime scene as they are kicking evidence out.
You never know who might show up at a crime scene.
Journalists are a given. Local political types have proven nosey enough. It's been said that Jesse Jackson never saw a camera he didn't like, and from coast to coast, community controverts such as Al Sharpton or Earl Ofari Hutchinson may make an appearance to get some air time and chastise cops for not having prevented the tragedy (the following week, they'll be decrying the same cops for racial profiling).
Wives, ex-wives, and girlfriends have shown up at crime scenes at the same time, sparking girls gone wild free-for-alls.
Larger agencies may find weekend duty commanders and others wanting a look inside. Unless it's pertinent to homicide's investigation to allow them in, keep 'em out. That, or ask them if they want to assume control of your investigation.
Then there's the suspects themselves. Sometimes they'll insinuate themselves among the looky lous to see what's going on, and how the investigation is going. Keep an eye out for suspicious types.
Graham County Sheriff Don Scott obtained the name of serial killer Francis Donald Nemecheck after he'd shown up at a crime scene. His follow-up resulted in Nemecheck's arrest and conviction for multiple murders.
One last piece of advice: Watch what you say. Even if no journalists are around, what you say can be communicated to them from some looky lou who overheard some speculative conclusion that can come back and bite you later.
Crime scenes are inherently stressful, and can be aggravated by countless others. But by having a game plan in place ahead of time, you can help prevent it from becoming more so.