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Whether you’re just starting as a CSO (Crime Scene Officer) or you’re a seasoned veteran, chances are you’ve found yourself in a classroom, seminar, or workshop dedicated to the ever-changing technology that affects our field. As I’ve mentioned before, being aware of the latest technology and the newest advances can certainly be important to performing your job well. After all, if you don’t know what’s available or even possible, you may get to a crime scene and miss important evidence. On the other hand, you don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that you can’t do your job properly unless your department purchases every piece of high-end equipment out there, and unless you become an expert in every specialized technique and procedure. Instead use your knowledge, and the tools you have, to your advantage. And when necessary, call in the experts.
One of the biggest mistakes I see these days is that CSOs get so focused on the latest and greatest technology that they forget about the basics. Don’t make that mistake. No matter what kind of scene you’re called to, your job is to protect, process, and document the scene. In order to perform those tasks properly, you need to make sure you’re prepared before you get the call. That means thinking ahead so that your crime scene vehicle is stocked with the essentials.
Begin by envisioning the scene and the tasks you’ll need to perform. Think about entering the scene. How are you going to be dressed? Depending on the type of scene, you’ll need booties, gloves, a mask, and a Tyvek suit to protect yourself and the scene. Processing and documenting the scene is a major part of your responsibility. A good crime scene kit is a must. Such a kit should contain a good quality flashlight; an evidence collection kit; paper and plastic evidence collection bags; tweezers; swabs; sterile distilled water; fingerprint equipment; tape for lifting fingerprints from smooth, flat, textured, and multi-contoured surfaces; tool impression materials, such as Mikrosil; casting material; and camera equipment, including a camera and/or lens capable of closeup photography and scales to use with photos. You’ll also want some lights and portable tents to protect your scene.
Now, many officers will assume that they need to purchase top-of-the-line equipment and then keep upgrading as technology changes. But the reality is that most departments don’t have the luxury of an unlimited budget, so you need to use your resources wisely.
Fortunately, you don’t need to spend a lot to get a good product. For example, a portable forensic light source is a great item to have in your kit. You can spend up to $5,000 for a high-end model, or you can spend $75-$85 for a basic, low-end model. So what if you have to black-out the light from windows to use the inexpensive model? That model will work well and save you a fortune. Another example is camera and video equipment. Sure, there are lots of fancy, expensive models that you can buy, but you don’t necessarily need to. Take the time to make sure you know how to use the equipment you already have; often, you’ll be amazed at what you can do with it. And be creative. For instance, when it comes to scene protection, don’t assume you need to invest in large, expensive tents. Besides the expense, a 30 foot by 20 foot tent will be difficult to transport and will require at least 45 minutes to an hour to set up. Why not purchase a couple of 10 foot by 10 foot tents? They’re easy to transport and assemble, and you can buy the kind that hook together. You can then add side panels for extra protection. For an investment of $49-$59 for each tent, you have a great way to protect your scene.
Once you’re working the scene, again remember to focus on the basics. Always assume that your case will eventually go to court, so you’ll need to collect all the evidence you find and document it properly. Be systematic and thorough when you conduct your crime scene search. One of the best techniques I know of to stay on track is to use a checklist. Such a list should include case information; scene security; people present (civilians and officials); roles and actions of official personnel; scene basics (location, missing items, etc.); scene security; search warrant information; and evidence documentation. Using a checklist helps ensure that you cover everything.
When you’re ready to process the scene, proceed carefully. Don’t move any evidence before you fully document it. Note on your checklist where you found the evidence, and then photograph the evidence using scales. Once you complete those steps, you can do any necessary processing. Use gloves when handling evidence, and package all evidence appropriately. Collect dry evidence in plastic bags and wet evidence in paper bags.
One of the keys to dealing with evidence is understanding the available technology and knowing your limits. Don’t think that you have to be able to do everything yourself. While some evidence can be processed at the scene, other evidence needs to be processed at your local or state crime lab. For instance, you can use Bluestar and luminol at the scene to detect blood and other body fluids, but you require experts to test the samples. The same is true with fingerprints. You can dust and lift for prints, but ninhydrin is used back at the lab.
Technology will continue to change and bring us new products and techniques. Take advantage of these benefits, but also make use of the resources already at your disposal. When you do need to purchase equipment, look for the most cost effective products. Keep up-to-date, but also remember your training. Following through with the basics may not seem glamorous, but doing so will help you get the job done right. And that, after all, is the real goal.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.