Forensics on the move

     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.

Purchasing considerations for mobile labs

     When Pinellas County set out to buy its mobile lab, no one flipped open a catalog and pointed to a picture and said, "That's the one." Starting with an empty shell, Pinellas County gathered input from its 44 crime scene unit members to create a wish list of equipment and capabilities. LDV then purpose-built the lab.

     To others considering the purchase of a mobile crime lab, Wentz says, "Decide what you need and what you want to do, and visit other agencies with mobile crime labs. Ask them what they like and what they would do differently."

     John Mauro, the forensic science supervisor who coordinated the input from the forensics unit for Pinellas County's mobile lab design, says one thing he would like the lab to have in the future is dependable satellite communications to transmit pictures from the mobile lab to the photo lab. Cellular communications are not always reliable, Mauro explains.

     LaGuardia says purchasing a mobile crime lab that's built to last a long time — and adapt to technology upgrades — will save money in the long run. Conversely, he says buying a vehicle now that's cheaply built will likely wear out sooner and not meet the demands of new technology in three to seven years.

     In other words, not all vehicles are built with rigorous crime scene work in mind. The overall structural integrity, the engine, the chassis, generators and wiring techniques, for example, can vary greatly.

     Dekle's advice for anyone looking to buy a mobile crime lab is the same advice he would give to someone looking to buy a mobile communications vehicle: "Listen to the people trained to use the equipment because they will tell you what will work in the field." Often he says the biggest mistake made by people acquiring trucks of any kind is that the people who are in the field doing the work don't get enough input into the design of the vehicle.

     "A vehicle needs to fulfill its mission requirements, and the people who know those requirements are the people who have gone through specialized training and constantly work in the field," he says.

     As technological capabilities increase, Dekle and LaGuardia anticipate the demand for mobile crime labs will increase and more work will be done at the crime scene.

Agency image

     The technology an agency uses directly influences its image: The public tends to notice a school bus-size vehicle with a law enforcement agency's name on the side, and it's likely other agencies will notice, too.

     Today's economic conditions are tough, but LaGuardia says agencies that aggressively pursue grants and demonstrate a need that helps them better serve their communities will get the funding.

     "These vehicles are tremendous crime-fighting tools for the department," he says. "Once in place, they become fixtures in the community. Their upkeep, replacement and retrofit costs often become part of budgets over time because they are proven to help officers better perform their jobs."

     Rebecca Kanable has been writing about law enforcement issues for approximately 10 years. She can be reached at

Tents and shields for the crime scene

     Hot temperatures, brisk winds and cold rain can make the job of collecting evidence more difficult. Crime scene technicians realize they don't always work in the best weather conditions or environments. They also know that big cases gather large crowds of onlookers and attract news helicopters overhead. While it's impossible to eliminate these outdoor challenges, setting up crime scene tents and shields can help eliminate some frustration.

     As more portable tools are available for use at the crime scene, Crime Sciences Inc. President Paul Couture reports increased demand for tents. Crime Sciences Inc. supplies tents to Gieserlab and Lynn Peavey Co. as well as directly to law enforcement agencies.

     From a distance, a crime scene tent might look like any other tent. Typically crime scene tents do not have a ground cloth so a tent can be placed over the evidence or an area where crime scene technicians are looking for evidence. These shelters not only protect crime scene technicians, they help preserve the crime scene and evidence, too.

Tents to make the grade

     MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kan., purchased a 10-foot-by-10-foot crime scene tent from Lynn Peavey. Forensic science majors in the university's criminal justice program use the tent to help them pass their final exam — processing a mock crime scene. Associate Professor Dan Patrich says he's set up the tent in all kinds of environments at all kinds of angles. He's had it on a grassy hillside, on pavement and on metal bleachers.

     Often he says weather conditions dictate when the tent is needed. When students were working on their outdoor crime scene this past semester, the temperature was 84 degrees F, so the tent was set up to provide shade. On a windy day, sides can be attached.

     Patrich says the sturdy tent, which takes two people to set up, won't blow away easily, which is one reason he opted to purchase a tent from a crime scene vendor instead of a commercial store. Another reason he likes the tent is its durability: "Some law enforcement agencies might balk at the price but realistically, it's probably the only tent you'll ever have to buy."

Added value

     Of course, the location of evidence doesn't always make setting up a tent feasible. When that happens, the tent (or an additional tent if one tent is already in use) could be set up as a place where crime scene technicians can take a quick break and rehydrate.

     Agencies can also find added value in the purchase of a crime scene tent by having other units use the tent when it's not set up at a crime scene. For example, the tent could be set up as a command post, a place for investigators to interview witnesses, or a booth to educate the community at the county fair.

     Mark Harris, TVI Corp. vice president of sales, says tents can provide a helpful workspace or resting spot when law enforcement is going to be at a location for any length of time. TVI makes a variety of shelters and tents, as well as customized tents. New to the company's product lineup is the 11-foot-by-11-foot utility shelter, which folds up small enough to fit in a vehicle trunk. Designed with smaller agencies in mind, this utility shed-shaped tent is less expensive than other TVI tents and can be used for a variety of applications.

     If a tent is needed for fingerprint fuming, TVI can meet that need as well. TVI's Law Enforcement Rapid Deploy Command Shelter is a basic unit for any field operation. Two people can set it up in 5 minutes. With an optional disposable liner, the shelter can be used for fingerprint fuming.

     While crime scene tents can protect crime scene technicians and the crime scene from the elements, they can also protect the integrity of the crime scene by shielding the view of onlookers and the media.

Privacy shields

     Crime scene privacy shields and body shields are designed to provide privacy in homicide cases.

     TVI has body and scene shields. The high body shield conceals a vehicle; the low body shield is half the height and used to surround a body or an important item.

     Harris points out using a body shield instead of a sheet eliminates the argument made in the 1994 O.J. Simpson case that covering a body with a sheet could leave trace evidence on the body from someone other than the suspect.

     Lynn Peavey sells two low-profile shields made by TVI and emphasizes the convenience of fitting the shields in a patrol or crime scene vehicle. The privacy shield is 4 feet high and makes the shape of a semi-circle that's 4 feet, 3 inches. The body shield is also 4 feet high but makes a complete circle that's 8 feet, 6 inches in diameter. Both can be stored in the trunk of a vehicle.

Purchasing considerations

     Harris suggests agencies looking to purchase a tent search for one that's long lasting and folds up for easy transportation.

     "Also check the fabrics so they don't fade or shrink from the outside elements, and be sure you can clean them and decontaminate them," he adds. "Some applications could require the use of bleach and strong cleaners."

     Durability is the main advantage of tents made for crime scenes, Couture agrees. A thick, anodized aluminum frame will stand up to the elements and rough use. He adds tents should be easy to set up.

     Everything else comes down to features, Harris concludes: "But you want something that can be serviced and used day in and out ... and just be there for you when you need it."