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As Crime Scene Officers, we strive to be prepared to deal with any crime scene we are called to. But even with great training and a well-stocked crime kit, most of us will eventually end up at a scene where we run into a problem that we can’t easily solve with the knowledge and equipment we have at hand. Sometimes the techniques taught in classes and workshops, or the tools or equipment we have at our disposal simply won’t work given the specifics of the crime scene in front of us. When you find yourself in such a situation, you need to think outside the box. In this article, we’ll take a look at some examples of these problems and the solutions CSOs have developed in response.
Many of you may already be familiar with my first example, the Blue Light Special, which I developed in 1994. At the time, we didn’t have a good option for a light source to view semen, urine, and saliva samples at the scene. The only lights available were large and expensive—in the range of $15,000 to $25,000. Even if we had had the ability to transport these large lights to the scene, the labs that owned them certainly weren’t willing to let us borrow such expensive equipment for field work. So I devised my own solution.
The Blue Light Special is a portable light source that you can pack in your crime scene kit and have available at all times. The unit fits on the head of a flashlight and has an amber viewing shield, which is attached on a swivel clip. In addition, the 455 nm blue filter included with the unit allows you to see semen, urine, and saliva stains right at the scene. Finding these samples at the scene saves you time and effort. Without such a portable light, you would have to collect everything at a scene that might possibly contain evidence. By identifying the evidence at the scene, you have the advantage of knowing what needs to be packaged and processed right away.With the Blue Light Special, I created a light source that is both portable and cost effective.
Another good example of an improvised solution comes from a friend of mine who was working as a CSO in Georgia. For one of his cases, he was digging up a body deep in a heavily wooded area. Just like in any case, he needed to document what he was doing with photography. With this type of case, though, he needed to shoot photos from above the scene to get a birds-eye view of the dig and the body. In similar situations, CSOs often call in bucket trucks—maybe from a tree trimmer or some similar type of service. But in this case, the scene was so far into overgrown woods that he couldn’t get a truck in. He was stuck—until he thought of a way around the problem.
He took PVC pipe and rigged a camera to the end of the pipe. Then he set the timer on the camera, lifted the contraption over the scene, and took the picture. He repeated the process as many times as needed to fully document the scene. With some improvements to this improvised device, Woods created the Eagle-Eye Pole. This device, which is available in either 8' or 16' lengths, has many practical uses. In addition to offering an option for overhead photography, the Eagle-Eye also allows CSOs to photograph in confined spaces such as closets, bathrooms, under stairs, etc. The Eagle-Eye Pole is also useful when you are confronted with a barrier such as a fence, wall, or body of water, or when you want to photograph a scene first before anyone enters it. Again, this product has the advantage of being portable and cost effective—another tool you can count on to help you get the job done.
Recently, I learned about another great tool while I was teaching a workshop on dust footprints. Typically, when looking for dust footprints, you check across floors, counters, etc. for signs of prints. Sometimes, though, finding these prints can be difficult because of the angle you’re looking from. As I was demonstrating the technique I use to search for prints, one of the class participants offered to share his method, which turned out to be simple and effective.
He takes a small (4" or 5") flashlight and attaches it at a 45 degree angle to the end of a broomstick with rubber bands. He then holds the pole with the light in front of him as he surveys the scene. With the light in this position, he often finds it much easier to locate dust footprints than if he simply held the flashlight in his hand near the floor.
Another type of crime scene that can present a problem is a shooting in which you have a large number of shell casings to account for. Consider, for example, a drive-by-shooting. In such a case, the suspect may have used an AK 47 or a similar weapon. You might have as many as 50 or 60 shell casings to deal with. How many tent markers do you have in your crime scene kit? Most CSOs have only 25. And most officers who run short will make up the difference with plain pieces of paper. The problem with that approach is that the plain paper markers can blow away, leaving you with a scene that is not properly documented. You can easily avoid this problem by creating your own supply of tent markers ahead of time. I’ve used my computer to create a template and then printed the tent marker on card stock. The marker is sturdy enough to stand up at the scene, and it can even be reused if it doesn’t have any blood or stains on it.
Marking bullet holes can also present a problem. When officers don’t have prepared labels, they resort to handmade versions. In many cases, I’ve seen officers use lifting tape to attach a piece of paper next to a bullet hole. While these labels may be better than nothing, they don’t make a professional impression. And as I’ve said before, you have to remember that your case will eventually end up in court. Juries today expect the same level of presentation and professionalism as they see on CSI and similar T.V. shows. While you don’t have unlimited funds and unlimited resources, you can take advantage of the technology you do have available. In this case, simply use the labeling program on your computer. You’ll end up with a supply of professional looking printed labels that will make a much better impression than a taped up piece of paper.
As you can see from these examples, challenging situations often lead to important innovations. A lot of the devices and products now on the market were developed by CSOs because the product they needed didn’t exist.When you’re in a tough situation, try to find your own tool of the trade. I know many of you may already have ideas of your own. If you’re interested in taking your ideas further, contact a crime scene supply company and see if it’s cost effective to manufacture. Today’s economy has changed: people can’t afford elaborate products these days, but there’s always room for the right product at the right price.
Dick Warrington is in research and development and a crime scene consultant and training instructor for the Lynn Peavey Company. Dick can be reached at email@example.com.