Crime Scene Checklists: Customizing the List
In the last issue, I discussed the value of crime scene checklists and provided an overview of the basic checklist. In this issue, I’ll discuss how to customize a basic checklist to make it work for specific types of scenes.
Before I show you how to customize a checklist, let’s review some key points. First, checklists are a great tool for keeping track of everything that happens at a crime scene. In order to be useful, a checklist needs to be both easy to use and comprehensive. Creating a checklist that works well requires careful thought and planning up front. Reviewing the forms you fill out for your cases will show you the kinds of information you’ll need for your checklist. Remember that every checklist should contain some basic information regardless of the type of scene. This basic information includes identifying information and information on the scene, any weapons found, scene processing, items processed at the scene, trace evidence, tracks, photo log, and leaving the scene. (Refer to the last column for details.) Once you’ve figured out what you need, create a master checklist that is detailed but easy to read, and create a template that can be saved and modified as needed.
Once you have your master checklist, you’re ready to customize it. Begin by thinking about the crime scenes you deal with. Then consider the following questions for each type of scene: What makes each different? What special or unique kind of information do you need to collect for that kind of case? What steps do you follow? The answers to these questions will help you create customized checklists.
First, let’s consider burglaries. In addition to the basic information that we just discussed, you’ll also need to keep track of items and processes specific to this type of scene. For example, note who was at the scene, point(s) of entry, point(s) of exit, weather conditions, whether windows or doors were broken or damaged, whether there was other damage inside the scene, and what was taken. As always, make careful note of what items were processed, the method used, and the result obtained. Also remember to set up your form so that it logically follows the way you process the scene. For instance, at burglaries you often find tool marks that you can cast; but before you cast, you need to photograph. To help ensure that you follow all of the steps, put them on the form:
1. Tool Marks Found: Y or N. Describe. Location, Photographed: Y or N. Casted: Y or N. Material Used.
If you’re dealing with a vehicle burglary, turn it into a checklist. Create a generic vehicle diagram. Make sure you include the top (roof), fenders, bottom panels, and sides. Photograph the vehicle using overall, medium, and close-up shots. You may end up with one or two overall shots, a few medium shots, and then close-ups of every place you find evidence. Wherever you find a print, be sure to mark it on your diagram. That way your diagram and photos will tie together. This kind of professionalism and attention to detail is essential in court cases.
You can also customize a checklist for assaults. For these cases, record where the assault occurred, who was there, how the scene was secured, information about the victim(s), and injuries to the victim(s). Include any information about weapons if they were used in the crime. Trace evidence can be crucial to these cases, so be sure to note whatever is found. In many instances, you’ll need to collect clothing and other items that may contain evidence. If the case involves rape, collect things like sheets, bedding, or any other items that may contain evidence of the assault or may be traced to a suspect. Here’s an example of a checklist for victim injuries:
1. Victim #1 Injuries: Y or N. Describe injuries. Describe where injuries occurred. Photographed: Y or N. For rape cases, also include a checkbox for the rape kit.
Of course, for major crime scenes the checklist becomes even more important and much more complicated. For example, at a death scene you need a vast amount of information beginning with the type of death—suicide, homicide, accidental, natural, or undetermined. Other things you need to track include search warrants issued, the people present at the scene (including all experts, officers, civilians, lawyers, etc.). You also have to note special equipment or technology used and who used it. Record everything related to the body itself—from where it was found to the evidence on and around it, to the people involved (including the coroner, the people who remove the body, other experts, etc.). And the list goes on and on. Your job is to get it down thoroughly and accurately. For a detailed look at building such a list, refer to a series of articles that I wrote for Forensic Magazine in 2005. These articles discuss the death scene checklist: www.forensicmag.com/article/its-all-report; www.forensicmag.com/article/eliminating-questions; www.forensicmag.com/article/mastering-puzzle; www.forensicmag.com/article/wrapping-scene.
I can’t stress enough what a difference it will make if you have that checklist ready to go before you arrive at the scene. We all know that crime scenes can be chaotic, and in the midst of that chaos, it’s all too easy to overlook a crucial step. Even when we’re working the seemingly “simple” cases, it’s easy to get distracted and miss a step. Don’t let that happen to you. Take the time to design a set of customized checklists that work for you. Put in the effort up front to organize your lists, and then use them at your scenes. You’ll stay on track, and you’ll be prepared when you get to court.
Dick Warrington is in research and development and a crime scene consultant and training instructor for the Lynn Peavey Company. firstname.lastname@example.org