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Who Says You Can't Do That? Protecting Your Crime Scene

Tue, 01/01/2008 - 3:00am
Dick Warrington

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. Dick can be reached
at dwarrington@peaveycorp.com.

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