Over the course of your career as a Crime Scene Officer you’re likely to encounter a wide variety of cases—everything from basic, straightforward scenes that are easily processed to complex major crime scenes that may require multiple days of work and the input of many outside experts. In some cases, scenes can be chaotic, and it can be easy to miss a step. But no matter the situation, it’s your responsibility to process the scene thoroughly, consistently, and professionally. What can you do to be ready for whatever comes your way?
One of the best tools I know of is a checklist. Checklists are used by professionals in many fields, including aviation, medicine, and construction. Written checklists help the professionals in these fields control the complex routines they need to follow to do their jobs correctly. In performing these jobs, it’s all too easy to forget a crucial step, even if it’s something that’s been done over and over again. For the CSO, a good checklist will help keep you on track. While you’ll have to spend some time up front creating the checklist, it will save you time in the long run. After all, you’re going to have to fill out a report at the end of each case. If you do a good job setting up your checklist, you’ll have all the information you need for your report by the time you finish processing the scene. Your narratives will be very short, since most of the information you’ll need will be in your checklist. Even more importantly, your checklist will help you avoid mistakes that can cost you a case.
In order to be worthwhile, the crime scene checklist needs to be comprehensive yet easy to use. It should cover everything from the time you’re called to the scene to the time the scene is released. The more detailed you make it, the better. Before you create your checklist, you need to think ahead. You never know exactly what you’re going to find at a crime scene until you start digging, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be prepared. Think about all of the information, evidence, etc. you need to consider for any case, whether it’s a robbery or an assault or a homicide. Review the forms you fill out for your cases. Those reports will show you the kinds of information you need to collect.
As you go through this process of analyzing your crime scenes and reports, you’ll find that there’s some basic information you’re going to need no matter the crime. Use this information as the starting point for your checklist. Then customize your form to create a checklist that is appropriate for each specific type of crime scene. You can use Microsoft Word Form Fill or any of the many available software programs on the market to create a template that can then be modified as needed.
Keep in mind that the purpose of the checklist is to help you collect the information you need and keep track of it. Set up your checklist so that it’s easy to fill out. Use boxes that can be filled in or checked off as you go along. Make the form easy to read. Ideally, it should also follow logically with the way you process a scene.
Let’s take a look at some basic information that should be on every checklist.
1. Identifying information. Provide boxes to fill in this information: Department Name; Offense; Date; Case #; Location; Time Notified; Notified By; Authorized By; Time Arrived; Victim’s Name, Address, and Phone #.
2. Information about the Scene. Note that some information needs boxes, some requires circling Y (yes) or N (no): 1st Officer at Scene; Scene Security: Was Scene Secured Y or N; Method Secured: Officer, Barrier Tape, Other; Scene Security Log Started Y or N (if needed); Scene Entry Log Started Y or N (if needed); Search Warrant Y or N.
3. Weapons Present. For each weapon present include the following information: Type (gun, knife, etc.); Location; Information Found on the Weapon.
4. Scene Processing. Evidence Recovered: Y or N; Evidence Custody Sheet Y or N; Location of all Evidence. List of all Evidence Collected at Crime Scene Y or N; Date and Time Recovered.
5. Items Processed at Scene. Fingerprinting Y or N. Location where Processed. Date and Time began. Date and Time ended. DNA Y or N. Location where Processed. Date and Time began. Date and Time ended. (Note: information should be recorded for each item processed.)
6. Trace Evidence. Sample list: Blood, hair, fibers, stains, glass fragments, soil/dirt, toolmarks, liquid, other. For each item, indicate Y or N, then describe the item, including the location where found.
7. Shoe and Tire Tracks. Shoe Tracks: Y or N. Describe, Location. Photographed: Y or N. Microstatic lifting: Y or N. Tire Tracks: Y or N. Describe, Location. Photographed: Y or N. Casted: Y or N.
8. Photo Log: Y or N (if required by department).
9. Leaving the Crime Scene: Date, Time, Was it Secured: Y or Turned over to the Victim.
As you can see, this checklist covers the key areas you need to remember to control your scene. Modify this list as needed to create your own master checklist. The effort you put in now will be well worth what you get out of it. And in the next issue of Forensic Magazine, I’ll discuss some ways to customize your master checklist for specific crime scenes.
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.