Following in the tire tracks of command centers, SWAT trucks, EOD vehicles and DUI vehicles, mobile crime laboratories have been the last large crime-fighting vehicles to grow in popularity and mature.
"We're seeing the beginning of vehicles becoming more sophisticated," says LDV Sales Development Manager Larry LaGuardia, naming video conferencing and satellite phones as examples of sophistication. "And they're more multi-purpose." Commonly mobile labs are geared toward the investigation of homicide scenes, meth labs and other crime scenes; as well as arson investigation and blood alcohol testing. Homeland security is another reason law enforcement agencies purchase mobile crime labs.
The key advantage of mobile labs is that when extensive processing and analysis needs to be done at the scene, crime scene technicians and analysts can drive a mobile laboratory right up to the perimeter of the crime scene and get to work.
NACS-Vehicles President Brian Dekle says it's not uncommon for law enforcement agencies serving an area with 150,000 or more residents to have a larger crime scene vehicle, but most often their purpose is to help collect evidence.
Few agencies have vehicles to analyze evidence. Mobile crime labs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, he says, but what's inside a vehicle is more important than vehicle size. What's inside a vehicle — equipment for evidence analysis and storage — can be expensive. Dekle says these costs determine what a mobile crime lab will ultimately look like.
Most mobile crime labs include equipment to analyze chemicals, special hoods for fume disposal, isolated boxes for hazardous material analysis, and supplies for crime scene investigation, according to LDV.
The difference between designing a communications vehicle and a crime lab is huge, Dekle says, because everything that's done on the scene is going to impact the outcome of a case later on.
An onsite lab can provide not only immediate analysis results, but help ensure proper evidence storage, as well as give crime scene technicians an office away from the office and a rest area complete with a bathroom.
Pinellas County's mobile crime lab
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office in Florida has 28 crime scene vans, two pickup trucks and a mobile crime lab. As part of the state's forensic response team, which is part of a regional domestic security task force, Pinellas County was able to obtain homeland security funding to purchase the mobile crime lab.
"The main purpose of obtaining the funding was to have a mobile crime lab that we could deploy into the field where we would be on scene for several days," says Lisa Wentz, Pinellas County Sheriff's Office forensic science manager. "We wanted a vehicle that would give us the capabilities of being able to process evidence on scene and taking care of our personnel."
Since 2006, the mobile lab has been ready to respond to a weapons of mass destruction event or a large-scale natural disaster. Neither has happened in the area since the vehicle was delivered, but the mobile crime lab is used about six times a year to respond to homicide scenes that require crime scene technicians to work for an extended period of time. The mobile lab also has been used in a regional, multi-agency training exercise.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office mobile crime lab is 40 feet long with three separate sections. The back end is a conference room or investigative room for detectives. It's equipped with a white board, radio communications, and video technology so investigators can see the crime scene without actually going to the scene. The middle of the vehicle was designed with the comfort of crime scene specialists in mind. For example, it has a microwave, refrigerator, sink and bathroom. The front section is the lab area, which can be closed off to prevent people from walking through while evidence is being processed. Here, most of the fingerprint processing can be done. A middle entrance allows forensic specialists to utilize the kitchenette and rest room areas without disturbing personnel in the conference or lab areas of the vehicle, which can be closed off from the middle section through the use of pocket doors.