How real blood, real bones & real bodies enhance forensics training

From bloodstain pattern analysis to grave excavations at a body farm, the National Forensic Academy takes a hands-on approach to teaching crime scene investigation


By Joseph Jaynes, P1 Contributor 

Since the TV show CSI and its many spin-offs hit the small screen, police officers have felt the impact these shows have on public perceptions of our work, in particular forensic investigations.

On CSI, a crime scene tech uses a mobile device to scan a fingerprint at a crime scene. Within seconds he has a full profile of the suspect, complete with criminal history, employment records and overdue library books! Over the years, citizens have come to expect the same level of crime scene wizardry from their local law enforcement agency (look up “CSI Effect” for some interesting reading).

Everything is authentic at the NFA – real blood, real bones, real bodies. (Photo/Joseph Jaynes)
Everything is authentic at the NFA – real blood, real bones, real bodies. (Photo/Joseph Jaynes)

I recently had the opportunity to attend a specialized crime scene school in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where I was afforded the opportunity to learn high-tech forensic investigation techniques, but they didn’t involve wizardry or radical technology, just boots on the ground, hands-on hard work.

About the National Forensic Academy

The National Forensic Academy (NFA) is part of the University of Tennessee’s Law Enforcement Innovation Center (LEIC). It is a 10-week school that covers nearly all facets of forensic investigation and processing crime scenes.

Agencies from all over the country (and even the world) send their officers, troopers, investigators and crime scene techs to this little town in east Tennessee to learn how to work a crime scene. Because it is such a long school students are housed in a gated apartment community in west Knoxville. Ten weeks is a long time to be away from home, but I was fortunate enough to live close enough that I could go home on the weekends.

The class is broken down into week segments. Week one offers an overview of the basics of processing a crime scene such as sketching, diagramming and taking measurements. Week two focuses on crime scene photography. I’ve taken classes that dabbled in photography before, but how all the settings work together just seemed to click this time. I can now confidently shoot in manual mode (though I usually settle for aperture priority). Week three focuses on chemical processing of latent prints, shoe prints and tool marks. From there classes review shooting scene reconstruction, bloodstain pattern analysis, human remains analysis, DNA, clandestine grave excavation, digital forensics and arson/post blast investigation.

Taking a hands-on approach

I had worked in criminal investigations for approximately 2½ years at the time I attended the NFA, but a good deal of what was covered in class was brand new to me. My crime scene processing experience up to that point consisted of taking photos in auto (or green) mode and crudely dusting for prints.

Suiting up for the grave excavation exercise at the body farm. (Photo/Joseph Jaynes)
Suiting up for the grave excavation exercise at the body farm. (Photo/Joseph Jaynes)

Fortunately, the school takes a very hands-on approach to forensic investigation instruction. More than half of our total classroom time was spent either outside or in the laboratory. Outdoor activities consist of bone scatter location exercises, post-blast investigation and processing cars that the instructors gleefully shoot up.

Then there is the body farm. We spent an entire day excavating a clandestine grave and collecting maggots and fly larva from a decomposing cadaver. When people hear about the body farm, they usually think about the body farm on UT campus founded by Dr. Bass. While Dr. Bass did come to speak to our class on several occasions, the NFA recently acquired a tract of land in rural Morgan County for its own body farm. In case you were wondering, it smells just as bad as you imagine. Maybe worse. The forensic entomology training we completed was an exercise in keeping your lunch down.

We also spent a good amount of time in a spacious laboratory playing with chemicals such as amido black and acid yellow 7, learning serial number restoration and playing with the school’s state of the art fuming chamber.

Each class gets a house that is slated for demolition donated to them by the city of Oak Ridge in which the instructors spatter blood everywhere. Students are then broken up into groups and assigned a room to process. Everything is authentic at the NFA – real blood, real bones, real bodies.

Fingerprint lifted from a steering wheel cover with fluorescent magnetic powder. Photo taken with a macro lens. (Photo/Joseph Jaynes)
Fingerprint lifted from a steering wheel cover with fluorescent magnetic powder. Photo taken with a macro lens. (Photo/Joseph Jaynes)

Networking opportunities are invaluable

Another advantage of the school is networking. Any LEO who has done time in any investigations field knows the value of having someone to call when they need help from another jurisdiction. We’ve all been stonewalled by receptionists, dispatchers and departmental switchboards.

Because course attendees lived and studied together for 10 weeks, we forged many friendships and made ourselves available to each other after graduating.

Paying the information forward

Something else happened after graduating the NFA that I didn’t expect but really enjoyed. I was asked to speak to my local city high school’s criminal justice class. Criminal justice was not taught in high school when I attended 20-something years ago, but it seems like a good idea.

After that I was asked to speak to a county high school, then another high school and then another. Then I was asked to speak at East TN State University’s Criminal Justice Society.

Pictures from the post-blast exercise. The scene was processed using a grad pattern. Yellow flags are pieces of the car and orange/white flags are pieces of the device. (Photo/Joseph Jaynes)
Pictures from the post-blast exercise. The scene was processed using a grad pattern. Yellow flags are pieces of the car and orange/white flags are pieces of the device. (Photo/Joseph Jaynes)

I brought pictures of our post-blast exercise, body farm and blood house, making sure to allow the squeamish students a chance to leave before doing so. Now I’m a regular fixture of my agency’s quarterly recruitment day.

The learning continues

All in all, I left with a world of knowledge about processing crime scenes and forensic investigation. In 18 years on the job, it is hands down the most comprehensive training I’ve received. But the more I learned and was exposed to in class, the more it became apparent how much I still have to learn. This weighed heavily as I returned back to work after being absent for 10 weeks. Upon my return I became one of four crime scene technicians for my agency, which means I am on call 24-7 to process major scenes like shootings, robberies and homicides. It is a heavy burden knowing I am responsible for photographing and processing evidence in major cases, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

My team’s room in the “blood house.” Each term the city of Oak Ridge donates a house (slated for demolition) for use during bloodstain pattern analysis week. The technique used here is called roadmapping. (Photo/Joseph Jaynes)
My team’s room in the “blood house.” Each term the city of Oak Ridge donates a house (slated for demolition) for use during bloodstain pattern analysis week. The technique used here is called roadmapping. (Photo/Joseph Jaynes)

To learn more about the National Forensic Academy, visit http://leic.tennessee.edu/home/training/forensic-training/national-forensic-academy/.

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About the author
Joseph Jaynes is a criminal investigator for the Johnson City (Tenn.) Police Department where his primary job is investigating auto theft. He has been employed by the police department for 14 years, 10 of which were spent on patrol. During that time he worked as an FTO and crash reconstructionist. He also serves on the department’s bike patrol team and enjoys mountain biking in his free time.

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