As with every other facet of law enforcement these days, departments are being called upon to do more — frequently much more — with less. With the current shortage of skilled law enforcement officers, further exacerbated by budget cuts and even layoffs, patrol officers are more likely to be called upon to perform crime scene processing previously handled by designated Investigators. Successful adaptation to such belt tightening measures and expanded duties hinges on providing the right tools to the right people.
Here are a few things to consider while adjusting to a new law enforcement reality.
1. Identify the need
What types of crimes that require forensic investigation are most prevalent in your jurisdiction? Does your department have its own designated Crime Scene Investigator? Do you bring in investigators from neighboring, larger jurisdictions, or call in the state team? Are your patrol officers not only the first on the scene, but the primary forensic investigators as well?
How often does your jurisdiction utilize forensic equipment, and what kind? Is most of what you deal with relatively “simple” crime scenes, requiring primarily photos and print dusting, with the occasional casting? Are they frequently messy crime scenes, involving blood splatter, bodily fluids, DNA collection, round trajectories and the like?
2. Assess your inventory
An assessment of the variables noted above will help determine what your actual equipment needs are, which can then be compared with what you have in inventory. Begin by taking stock of your inventory. How old is it? What’s its condition? The middle of a crime scene is not the time to discover that a needed piece of equipment is no longer functioning, or more hindrance than asset.
With your identified need in mind, and your current inventory in hand, you can more accurately build or simply replenish your equipment needs.
3. Assess resources, both human and financial
It does no good to spend valuable financial resources to acquire equipment that no one is going to use or use effectively. Being able to immediately go to the trunk of your cruiser and remove and begin using a properly-stocked crime scene kit will enable you to both feel and look competent. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the investigation, the victim will long remember if the officer more closely resembled CSI, or Barney Fife. If some of your officers are a bit rusty, an in-house refresher or sitting in on a unit of instruction at the Academy can do wonders
Here are some questions to ask:
• If your department works the majority of their own crime scenes, what is the level of expertise of those doing the forensic investigation?
• If patrol officers are tasked with the processing of a simple B&Es, how proficient are they in dusting for prints?
• Taking photos?
• Pouring casts?
• What is their level of confidence, and how is that conveyed to the victims?
Then come decisions regarding the actual equipment, weighing cost and need:
• Camel hair, fiberglass, or feather brushes?
• Powder or magnetic powder, or both?
• Can you afford an electrostatic dust print lifter ($500-$600), or can you manage most cases with a gel lifter ($5-$6 each)?
• Do you have the needed space and environment requirements for cyanoacrylate fuming chamber?
• If so, do have the ability to buy one, or will you need to build one out of an old aquarium?
• Can you buy pre-stamped evidence bag and boxes, or do you hit your local grocery and pizza delivery place?
There are a variety of suppliers of forensic equipment on the market, and probably every one of them offers “crime scene kits” of various sizes and costs. Such kits, depending on inventory, can range from under $50 to several thousand dollars.
While it’s certainly convenient to simply order a kit and toss it in the trunk of a cruiser, it may be much more feasible and cost effective to build your own, starting with a plastic tool box from your local big-box store. In answering all of the above, a conversation with an evidence technician at the State Lab can be extremely helpful in determining what works best, and what (cheaper) alternatives may be possible.
Do you have any other suggestions for officers purchasing and evaluating forensics products? Please leave a comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your feedback.