Crime Scenes: Stopping the Evidence Eradication Gremlins
I remember years ago standing guard on a crime scene and hearing detectives lament that the “evidence eradication gremlins have been here.” They were referring to first responders. Firefighters and EMS personnel handling emergency medical response to a patient (no offense to them as they are doing a necessary job) have particularly been long joked about in police circles as being “evidence eradication gremlins.”
However, the worst offenders are sometimes our coworkers in blue. Here are ten tips for patrol officer to help preserve crime scene investigative integrity. These may appear to be obvious reminders, but I have found that not all of these tips are followed consistently. They are based on my own experiences and observations of police officers and deputy sheriffs at crime scenes.
- Secure the scene quickly. It may sound obvious, but put a lid on that crime scene as soon as possible. Place a uniformed patrol officer at each avenue of entrance or egress and string up that yellow crime scene tape. It is best to only have one point of access.
- Control family/witnesses. Make sure that any family members and witnesses are identified and moved away from the crime scene. They should also be separated to avoid any tainting of their versions of events.
- Suspect status. Be sure that all officers, particularly those guarding the entrance, are aware of the suspect’s status. This is crucial information if the suspect has not yet been apprehended and may return to the scene.
- Make observations. Note the placement of items in the crime scene and any additions left by EMS personnel. Pass that information to the investigator taking charge of the scene.
- Log in all personnel. Be sure that uniformed personnel at the checkpoints log in and out all people entering the crime scene with their name, rank, agency affiliation, time in, and time out. That includes the police chief, sheriff, and other big wigs. It’s simple: if they go under that tape or past the logging officer, they get put on the crime scene log. Some officers even turn their marked unit towards the scene to enable the in-car camera to video tape who goes in and out.
- Discourage those who gawk. Much like a bad wreck on a highway attracts the curious; discourage non-essential personnel from showing up at that crime scene. I have found that the mention that they will be logged in and possibly subject to a future court subpoena takes care of that issue in short order.
- No debris. All officers, and even the public thanks to shows like CSI, know that nothing should be discarded on the floor of the crime scene. Yet, I have observed officers drop gum, soda can tabs, cigarettes, and the like in and around the crime scene they were working. The floor or ground is vital segment of the scene as most evidence ends up there. Additions after the fact compromise the scene.
- Media area. Set up a media staging area away from the crime scene. You may need to set up a barrier to prevent a body from being video taped for the 6:00 news. Give the press regular updates of useful, non-investigative impairing information. A lack of regular updates from a public information officer or law enforcement executive will lead the media to develop their own unofficial sources. (for more on dealing with the media, refer to my other PoliceOne.com column, The Police and the Press)
- Protect from weather. If your scene is outdoors, you will certainly want to protect it from the effects of inclement weather. If your agency does not have an overhead canopy, you may be able to contact your local funeral home and borrow several of theirs.
- Communicate. Whatever the situation, make sure that you communicate with your supervisor and, when he or she arrives, the investigative commander in charge of the scene. All information should be turned over to that person, as well as any issues that need to be resolved. Most patrol officers are not involved in crime scene processing to the extent shown on TV’s CSI. But they are no less vital. Officers neglecting these ten tips could jeopardize the integrity of the investigation. The law enforcer’s response is critical to keeping the evidence eradication gremlins at bay.