Seeing the aftermath of a violent crime is just part of the job for Dena Weiss, a crime scene investigator and fingerprint expert for the Lakeland, Florida Police Department. As part of a five-person CSI team, Weiss responds to many gruesome crime scenes to collect evidence and process the scene, a job she’s been doing for more than 16 years.
While her job may be less dangerous than the average street cop (that is, no one is shooting at her), the job can be just as traumatizing.
One of the biggest challenges for crime scene investigators — and many law enforcement officers — is learning how to cope with disturbing scenes.
Worst Case: Death of a Child
“You have to be able to handle seeing a lot of heartbreaking violent acts,” stated Weiss.
The biggest challenge for many law enforcement officers and crime scene investigators is dealing with the death of children.
“The violent death of a child is horrific to deal with,” said Weiss.
Her worst case to date was on Mother’s Day more than 15 years ago. She was eight months pregnant with her second child and was sitting at the breakfast table with her three-year-old son when her pager beeped.
She responded to a crime scene that turned out to be the murder-suicide of a mother and her young daughter. The mother and daughter were in matching pajamas, both shot and lying in bed for the woman’s husband to find when he arrived home.
“We spent more than nine hours at that crime scene,” said Weiss. “It haunted me for a long time.”
Keys to a Long Career
Exercising to release stress has been a key to Weiss’s long career.
“I ride horses,” she said. “I get on for 30 minutes and run the heck out of [my horse]…it’s a stress release for me.”
After a ride, she can take a deep breath and refocus on what she needs to do at home. Consequently, the emotional turmoil and stress subsides.
“You have to sweat it out of you,” she advises, and says you have to learn how not to bring your work home with you.
Weiss also relies heavily on colleagues for emotional support. Fortunately, she has been working with the same small group of crime scene investigators for about 10 years.
“We have each other to lean on,” she said. Sometimes a crime scene will affect one person more than others. When that situation arises, the other members of the team will assign that person to roles on the periphery of the crime scene.
Weiss also believes that some people are just more cut out for law enforcement and crime scene investigation than others. In addition to working for the Lakeland Police Department, Weiss is also a full-time professor at American Military University, teaching criminal justice and forensic science classes.
As a professor, she gives many of her students a reality check, informing them that a career in law enforcement — especially as a crime scene investigator — is often far from glorious.
“Many students [who want to be crime scene investigators] are under the impression that they don’t have to touch dead bodies,” she said.
“You definitely have to pull dead bodies out of ditches, search through gator-invested swamp water for skeletal remains, and assist during autopsies,” she said.
Real-life crime scene investigation is very different than what is seen on popular TV shows. Every day has the potential to be your most challenging yet.