Homicide scenes are wrought with chaos and swirling emotions. Whether they are the emotions of the victims’ family members, or in the event of a fallen police officer, the emotions may be those of law enforcement peers, it can be difficult to control and manage a homicide scene. But there are certain steps that can be taken in those first critical moments that can help to ensure that the investigation which follows will be successful.
“The first responders — the uniform officers and uniform division supervisors and commanders — are truly the key component to successfully managing and protecting any crime scene, especially a homicide scene,” says Rick Graham, who served as Chief of Detectives for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. “Uniform personnel are on the scene of a homicide within minutes of dispatch, and far ahead of the investigative and crime scene personnel. The five to ten minutes following arrival are critical. A good beginning usually equates to a successful conclusion.”
Graham, who now serves as a Law Enforcement Liaison for LexisNexis RISK Solutions, says that a supervisor should also respond to the scene of a homicide and upon arrival, establish a command post. There, the supervisor becomes the “orchestra leader,” from whom all personnel at the scene receive their assignment. Those assignments, says Graham, should be recorded by a “scribe.”
Graham says that the first duty of the supervisor is to ensure that all injured and deceased persons have been located (and proper medical attention summoned for the injured). “Do not assume that this critical mission has been conducted. Suspect apprehension, crowd control, and other dynamics can easily cause important factors to be overlooked, reduced in priority, or even forgotten in the heat of the moment.”
Graham says that the next step is to ensure that the crime scene has been rendered safe. He says that at this stage, several steps should be addressed simultaneously.
1.) Ensure that any and all witnesses are located and placed in a secure area — away from the media — monitored by a uniformed officer. Witnesses should be directed to not discuss what they saw or heard related to the incident. Eventually they will all need to be interviewed by the responding investigators.
2.) Ensure that the crime scene is properly secured with crime scene tape or barricades. Large is always good. A crime scene can always be reduced in size as the investigation progresses.
3.) Once a crime scene has been established (an inner and outer perimeter is recommended) post adequate personnel on the outer perimeter to ensure that the integrity of the scene is not compromised or contaminated.
4.) The homicide crime scene should be posted and secured until investigative and crime scene personnel arrive on scene. Once the investigative personnel arrive, transition of crime scene responsibility can begin between the uniform division and the investigative division. The transition should involve a formal conversation and should be properly recorded to ensure accountability.
“The bottom line is this,” says Graham. “The initial response at a homicide scene is hugely important. If proper actions do not occur the moment the first officer arrives on the scene it becomes increasingly difficult to gain proper control. The probability of witnesses being missed or physical evidence being lost or destroyed is greatly increased when first responders lose sight of how critical they are to the successful conclusion of such an important incident.”