Whether in small towns or big cities, rural agencies or metro, officers daily are called upon to secure crime scenes and preserve the integrity of evidence that will be gathered and processed by forensic teams. Once those first units arrive at the incident location, how can they best secure the crime scene?
Special Agent Elaina Honea is a Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) crime scene specialist and one of just four technical leaders in her field for the agency.
While in college she wanted to become a teacher, but trying her hand at student teaching changed her mind quickly. She switched her major to criminal justice and landed an internship with the GBI her senior year. That is when she found her true calling.
“We worked a homicide on the first day of my internship, and I knew then this is what I wanted to do. So that was my primary focus from that point on,” she says.
When Honea graduated from college, the GBI was under a hiring freeze. So, she furthered her education by completing her masters in criminal justice. After that, she put herself through the police academy.
She was hired by the GBI in 2012 and worked nearly a year in middle Georgia as a drug agent before transferring to her current region office in north Georgia. After about four months in that new office, she changed roles and became a crime scene specialist in July 2013.
Now as a technical leader, Honea reviews the work of other GBI crime scene specialists.
“We do any kind of technical review. If a crime scene specialist works an officer-involved shooting or homicide, we peer review their work to verify that they're conducting the crime scene examination properly. And then also if they do anything like a shooting reconstruction or a blood stain pattern analysis, I will peer review the document and say, ‘yes, I agree with your findings,’” she explains. “It's just a technical review documenting that they are properly identifying and processing the scene.”
Ironically, the one who decided not to become a teacher in a sense has become one. She has taught the POST-certification Advanced Crime Scene Processing Class and commonly teaches officers from local agencies served by her office about crime scene work.
“The most important part of securing the crime scene is to preserve the evidence,” Honea stresses. “Once you get past the initial officer safety and securing others, the most important thing is to secure that evidence, prevent it from being destroyed, prevent it from being manipulated.”
Honea says when she arrives at an incident location, she first documents that the scene was secured with tape and an officer is keeping a crime scene log. That log is then attached to the summary.
“If we can show that the scene has been secured, we've been told that nobody's been in the scene since the initial response, and it's been roped off, that ultimately once it gets to court is a huge thing that the prosecution can discuss that this scene is as uncontaminated as possible,” she says.
Honea believes it is always best to enclose and secure a larger area rather than just an immediate area.
“If you have a residence and even though the crime occurred inside, go ahead and put the tape around the entire curtilage of the scene. Wrap it around their entire yard, all the way to their mailbox, and everything. If you know that the suspect is not on scene and has left, understand that there may be evidence in the roadway that you need to be conscious of.”
With her background in crime scene investigation and her love of teaching it to others, Honea has provided 10 tips that responding officers and investigators should keep in mind. What she points out can help maintain the integrity of the scene and the evidence until a forensic team arrives.
Honea’s tips for securing a crime scene are:
1. Officer Safety First, Then Safety of Others on Scene
When responding to a crime scene, or potential crime scene, the officer’s safety is the number one priority. The officer cannot render aid and protect witnesses or victims at the scene if the officer is injured. The officer’s responsibility is then to verify the safety of others on scene. Remove everyone from the immediate scene and determine who, if anyone, needs medical assistance.
2. Clear the Scene to Verify No One Is Hiding
Clear the scene prior to rendering aid to anyone. You cannot help others if the suspect is hiding somewhere in the scene and can possibly injure you while you’re assisting others. This is not the time to do a thorough search of the scene for evidence. You are simply checking any area a person can hide to verify the scene is safe.
When clearing the scene, try to avoid disturbing anything, if possible. Try to note any lights that may have been on or off before you entered a room. Try to avoid stepping in blood, but if you do, take note of it. Bloody shoe impressions at a scene can help identify a suspect, but if you’re the one who created them, investigators and crime scene personnel need to know. Try to avoid touching anything without wearing gloves to avoid leaving your fingerprints or contaminating a suspect’s prints. It is always best to wear latex gloves rather than patrol gloves when on a scene.
3. Document Others’ Movements in Scene
If EMS is on scene, allow them to do their job. But try to document anything and everything they move or manipulate in the scene. EMS will manipulate the crime scene in the process of attempting to render aid, but if you document what they do and what they move, it assists the investigators and crime scene personnel with still being able to conduct a proper examination of the scene. Body-worn cameras (BWCs) are great for this. They help document the scene as it was when you arrived and allow you to document what EMS is doing.
It is really important at this time if anyone else in the scene that you document their movements through the scene or remove them from the immediate scene completely. It is always preferable that there is more than one officer on scene, but obviously, that’s not always possible. If more than one officer is on scene, split duties. Someone should control witnesses while someone else stays with EMS.
4. Separate Witnesses from Bystanders
Determine who is considered a witness and who is considered a bystander. Witnesses should be separated and kept on scene (outside of the crime scene tape) to be interviewed by investigators. Bystanders need to be removed from the scene completely.
Witnesses are considered those who actually witnessed the crime occur or witnessed activities immediately before or after the crime occurred. Bystanders are considered those who showed up after the fact and know nothing about the crime. If you are unable to determine whether they are a witness or bystander, treat them as a witness.
It is also a good idea to obtain contact information for anyone on scene in case an investigator needs to follow up the person. Get their name, address, and a good contact number for them. If the suspect(s) is still on scene, keep them away from witnesses or other suspects. If the suspect is known at this time, put them in a patrol car and away from everyone else.
5. Touch/Manipulate as Little as Possible
Once the scene is secure, a search warrant or consent will be needed to process the scene. If you are still in the scene with EMS or trying to remove witnesses, touch as little as possible. If you must touch something, make sure you are wearing gloves. Latex gloves are better to be worn while manipulating anything in the crime scene. Patrol gloves can absorb biological evidence or contaminate evidence in the scene. If you have moved or manipulated anything in the scene, make sure it is documented for investigators and crime scene personnel.
If there is a gun or other dangerous weapon on scene that poses no threat to anyone, leave it alone. If you are responding to a reported suicide with a self-inflicted gunshot wound and the gun is still in the victim’s hand, the gun is not going to go off on its own. Do not touch it. There is no reason to clear a weapon for “officer safety” if the gun is in the hand or near a deceased individual. If a gun is located in the scene and no one is near it, leave the gun alone. If a gun does pose a threat to officer safety due to multiple people being in the residence, by all means unload the gun. Just make sure you document it.
6. Bigger Is Better
Place crime scene tape around the scene. If the scene is a residence, place tape around the curtilage of the scene. If there is visible evidence in the roadway or outside the immediate curtilage, continue the tape out to secure that area, as well. You can always make the scene smaller, if you determine the size of the scene is unnecessary, but it’s much harder to expand your scene once evidence has potentially been altered or destroyed.
7. Post Officer at the Crime Scene Tape
No one goes into the scene that doesn’t need to. Criminal Investigations Division (CID), the crime scene unit, or state agency (if being used) should be the only ones to enter the scene once it is roped off to avoid contamination or destruction of evidence. If there are a lot of “sightseers” and/or media, create an outer perimeter in addition to the inner perimeter. If it is a large scene, multiple officers may need to be used to keep the scene secure.
8. Note Any Transient Evidence and Document
Transient evidence is evidence that may be easily destroyed or lost if preservation measures are not taken immediately. Transient evidence may be odors at the scene, ice in a glass, blood on a portion outside that may be destroyed if it’s raining or about to rain, etc. First responding officers should try to note these things once the scene is secured. The officer can photograph the item before it’s destroyed or lost or cover the evidence, so it doesn’t get rained on. Ice in a glass may melt by the time investigators or the crime scene unit get into the scene. The ice may be probative to the investigation. Blood outside may indicate the suspect was injured. If it’s about to rain, that evidence could be lost. It you can put a tarp or tent over it, that may assist with preserving it. If you have a way to collect the blood, go ahead and collect it to preserve the evidence. It is very important to try to obtain photographs of this evidence, so investigators and crime scene personnel know where and in what condition the evidence was in when you arrived.
9. Do Not Introduce Anything to The Crime Scene Unnecessarily
Do not make yourself at home in the crime scene. Don’t bring your coffee into the scene and sit down on the furniture. Don’t use any phones in the scene that don’t belong to you. Don’t use the bathroom in the scene. Don’t eat or drink anything from the scene. Don’t smoke or spit in the scene. If you want to smoke go outside the crime scene tape, but do not throw your cigarette butts on the ground. If you chew tobacco, don’t spit in the scene or anywhere in the general area of the scene —use a spit bottle. Do not worry about marking evidence unless there’s the potential the evidence may be altered or destroyed without doing so.
10. Contact the Coroner or Medical Examiner
If the victim is deceased and not being transported to the hospital, the coroner or medical examiner will have to pronounce the victim deceased. Make sure they are contacted and enroute to the scene.