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Recent advances in forensic science have significantly improved our ability to solve cases and convict criminals. In order to take advantage of the available technology, crime scene investigators must approach every crime scene with an eye towards capturing every possible piece of evidence. To accomplish this goal, investigators need to arrive at each scene with the proper equipment to conduct a thorough investigation. In addition, investigators now realize that with the right vehicle, they can often make an even stronger case by processing evidence right at major crime scenes. In this article, I’ll look at these issues and some of the options available for mobile crime scene vehicles.
Let’s begin by taking a look at the problem of storing and transporting the equipment needed at a crime scene. The simplest and cheapest solution is to load everything into the trunk of a patrol car. Many agencies in areas with low crime rates and tight budgets rely on this solution. And in general, it works fine—especially when you are talking about the basic equipment that every crime scene investigator should bring to every scene (things like fingerprint equipment; photographic equipment; blood collection supplies; evidence packaging; casting and impression equipment; biohazard kits; and miscellaneous supplies such as measuring devices, labels, paper and pens or pencils, screwdrivers, pocket knives, other cutting tools, and flashlights and batteries, etc.).
Of course, this approach has some obvious drawbacks. First, it’s difficult to keep your equipment organized in a patrol car. Also, you may run into a problem if you have a scene that requires special equipment. For example, items such as extra lighting sources, large tents, and privacy screens won’t fit into the truck. For those items, you’ll need to find a larger vehicle. Be sure to make arrangements to access such a vehicle ahead of time so you’re prepared when you get called to that type of scene.
Because of these problems, many agencies choose to purchase a separate vehicle for their crime scene investigation equipment. Some options include panel or box vans, box trucks, and old ambulances. Again, your budget and your caseload will determine how far you can go. All of these vehicles I just mentioned have the benefit of providing extra storage space. And by adding shelves and other storage containers, you can make it easier to keep your equipment and the evidence you gather organized and well-protected. Ambulances are often an especially good choice for a crime scene vehicle because they already have built-in containers that can be retrofitted to your needs. Ambulances, box vans, and box trucks also have the advantage of being large enough to walk around in comfortably. These vans and trucks may also be equipped with their own generators, lighting systems, and work stations.
Being able to move comfortably inside your vehicle can be a huge advantage. Depending on just how much room you have to maneuver, you may be able to file reports, send data, and process your evidence right at the scene. Performing these tasks at the scene can save you time and help with your investigation, especially when you’re dealing with major crimes.
The next step up from retrofitting an existing vehicle is purchasing a customized mobile crime scene lab. The two basic types of labs are a container style that needs to be delivered to the scene and a motorized style that can be driven to the site. Once the container is delivered by the semi-trailer to the scene, it takes about 45 minutes to set it up. The motorized vehicles are built on a bus or RV-type platform and do not require any additional set-up time. Because each lab is designed to meet the needs of the agency that orders it, each one will be different. However, most labs will likely contain their own generator, water supply, fuming chamber, copy stand for photography, computer work stations, portable lighting sources, and additional stations for processing items for fingerprints.
Clearly, mobile crime scene labs are best suited for massive crimes such as multiple homicides. Such large scale crimes require extra storage and extra equipment. The investigation may last for days or even weeks, so it saves time to be able to “park” the lab right at the scene. And as I noted earlier, it also saves time to begin processing evidence right at the scene. But remember that the more complex the task, the more expertise you’re going to need. If you want to perform sophisticated lab analysis at the scene, you need to have the right experts on hand. So before you decide to spend your budget on a state-of-the-art mobile crime scene lab, consider whether you have the proper personnel to operate it. It may make more sense to coordinate your efforts with larger agencies in your area or your state agency.
Finding the right mobile crime scene vehicle for your agency is a complicated task. It involves looking carefully at your cases, your expertise, and your budget. Once you figure out the right way to balance the need for storage space and the need for work space, then you can decide what vehicle or combination of vehicles will help you get the job done.
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.