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Here’s a scene you’ve probably encountered: an accident occurs on an interstate and traffic backs up in both directions because motorists have slowed down to get a better look. It’s human nature to be curious. But such actions can create a danger to motorists and aren’t respectful to the privacy of the victim. As crime scene officers we have the responsibility of protecting the crime scene and its integrity, and protecting the dignity of the victim. In this article, I’ll discuss problems you need to watch out for and products you can use to help protect your crime scene.
Sometimes problems occur when we aren’t properly prepared. Often at a crime scene, a member of the public or the first responding officer will try to protect the dignity and privacy of the victim by covering the body with whatever sheet or blanket is readily available from a residence or vehicle. While this impulse is understandable, it can create problems. As we know from Locard’s exchange principle, hairs found on the victim could have been transferred from a source other than the suspect. Therefore, if the sheet or blanket is not clean, you risk transferring evidence that will contaminate the body. This type of problem happened in a case where an examination of the trace evidence on the victim found dog hair—and the suspect had a German shepherd. But the officer who had covered the victim at the scene had used a blanket from his patrol car—and it just so happened that he was a K9 officer. The trace evidence was then useless to the investigation. So if you want to be able to cover the victim, remember to keep sheets or blankets that are clean and free from contaminants in your vehicle.
Even when you cover the body appropriately, you still leave the scene exposed. In an attempt to solve this problem, officers often resort to holding up a tarp or some other material to block the public’s view. An even better option for maintaining privacy is a privacy screen. These shields are usually around 10'-12' long and 4' high, and are convenient to use because they are small enough to fit in your cruiser or crime scene vehicle. They work well for blocking the view from the ground up for scenes like those that occur on the side of a roadway and block the wind from blowing away trace evidence.
For scenes where you want to protect access from more than one direction, you can use a privacy shield. These shields are also about 4' high, but they cover 360 degrees around the body. They also fold up to fit in your vehicle.
Of course, in today’s world, your job is further complicated by the media, which can appear on the ground and in the air to try to document major crime scenes. Besides worrying about still images from a long telephoto lens getting published in the newspaper, you also have to worry about video images from a hovering helicopter appearing on a television news program. As a professional, you want to spare the victim's family from seeing such things. And as a professional, you also want to conduct your investigation effectively. The suspect should not be able to view the scene and the work you are performing. Nor should the general public. By keeping the scene private, you help eliminate false leads from people whose information is only based on the images of the scene they saw on television.
Unfortunately, media interference in major cases is not uncommon. An example from 1997 is the murder scene of Ennis Cosby, the comedian’s son. The media went up in a helicopter and got shots of the scene and the body, instantly broadcasting them and violating the victim’s privacy.
Whenever you are dealing with major cases, you need to fully protect the scene on all sides and from above. The best way to do this is with a free-standing tent. The tent should be one that sets up quickly, is easily transported in your cruiser or crime scene vehicle, is self-supporting at the four corners (no center pole), and includes side panels that offer protection to the officers inside doing their job.
Investing in this type of tent is worthwhile because it can also be used for other purposes. For example, it can be used for any scene when you need protection from the elements. If you know it’s going to start raining or snowing, you can set up the tent to protect key evidence. Also, if you have a case that will take a long time to process, such as a body that needs to be excavated, you can use the tent for protection while the work proceeds.
In addition, a tent works well alongside or over the top of a vehicle. It can also be used at the entrance to a crime scene at a residence. The tent then serves as both a controlled area and a staging area to change into proper gear before entering the residence. Also, a larger free-standing tent can serve as a command center or as a fuming tent. In other words, you establish the use according to your needs.
The key goal is professionalism—we want to secure the crime scene, process it appropriately, and preserve all evidence, while always maintaining respect for the privacy and dignity of the victim. By planning ahead and using the resources available to you, you can do just that.
Dick Warrington is in research and development and a crime scene consultant and training instructor for the Lynn Peavey Company. For the past several years, Dick has been teaching classes throughout the U.S. and Canada, trying to dispel some of those “you can’t do that” myths.