by Michael Dymmoch
...I didn't learn from watching CSI. The popular TV franchise seems to be the butt of jokes from cops, writers and real crime scene investigators.
So where does one satisfy one's curiosity about real crime scene investigations?
Real cops are a good source—if you can get them to talk to you. Authors Mike Black and Dave Case, both police officers, do a great crime scene presentation at mystery conferences. And they're pretty easy to talk to at signings—especially their own.
Most police departments have an information officer whose job is to field questions from the press and public. The Chicago Police have a News Affairs Department, which I've found to be quite helpful. Citizen's Police Academies are another good source for information about local procedures and regulations. And local departments will sometimes arrange ride-alongs for writers or interested citizens. Then there's the FBI Citizens' Academy for civic leaders who can talk a local agent into sponsoring them (and can pass a background check).
Conferences frequently feature panels, lectures or seminars on crime related topics (and sometimes on GUNS!). Jan Burke arranged a superb Forensic Science Day for the Left Coast Crime conference this spring at the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, home of the Los Angeles Regional Crime Lab. Lecturers gave us slide presentations on two real crime scenes, including bloody photos, and an explanation of how the scenes were processed and what the evidence proved. We also got a short course on document examination and a tour of the lab itself, which is state of the art and has separate facilities for processing trace evidence, documents, firearms, and DNA (with two separate rooms with different purposes and different colored lab coats to minimize human error). There's also a killer gun collection, a garage with a lift for under-car searches, offices for processing paperwork, and classrooms where CSU students study to become CSIs.
Which leads to one of the best sources of accurate CSI information: College or University Criminal Justice Departments. My most recent field trip was to a University of Wisconsin-Platteville Seminar. Basic Forensic Academy for Authors was taught by UW-P lecturer Joseph Lefevre, a police officer and fire department photographer. The venue was a ranch-style house designed as a laboratory/observatory and constructed by UW students on the University's College Farm property. The house has an attached garage and full, semi-finished basement that can serve as a lecture hall or an industrial crime scene. The main floor has a living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry room and bath. A third room is equipped with video monitors, and see-through observation mirrors allow instructors to monitor their student CSIs via cc TV; every room but the bathroom is covered by video cameras. Although we weren't able to dig deeply into it, we were informed that the Forensic Science program also includes a fenced "body farm" where students monitor the progress of decomposition in pig cadavers.
The seminar began with the first-officer-on-the-scene's responsibilities and what the CSI does when he(she) arrives. What most people over look is the need to first determine whether or not a crime has occurred. Covered during the first day were methods used to examine and document indoor and outdoor scenes, as well as how to locate, collect and process evidence. The importance of securing a scene, documenting who has access to it, and maintaining the chain of evidence were stressed. Two indoor crime scenes were set up for us to examine and we were quizzed as to what might have happened at each scene. We also did an outdoor search for evidence and were able to locate two syringes, and two shell casings discarded in a field adjacent to the house.
Making casts of footwear impressions, outdoors, and lifting finger prints from various objects, indoors, were also part of the hands-on instruction.
The second day of the seminar, we covered the basics of proper evidence collection. (Here's something you don't see on TV's CSI. Proper technique dictates that new gloves be put on to pick up every piece of evidence that may require processing for DNA!)
After which, we went into the house and "investigated" the murder of the "homeowner."
We examined and processed the entire house, took photographs of each room, then medium and close up photos of each item of evidence with numbered tents placed next to each item, and rulers next to items whose sizes weren't obvious. Finally we collected and bagged the evidence and logged it on an inventory sheet.
Mr. Lefevre told us that to preserve continuity, one person usually works a scene from start to finish with occasional help with note taking. Real crime scene investigation is painstaking and time consuming. And processing a scene like the one set up for us can take 12 hours or more.