Officer-involved shootings

Uncovering clues with 3D diagramming


     It is for this reason that Kimsey feels it is vital to collect data from the crime scene of an officer-involved shooting as soon as possible. This, he says, will enable the reconstructionist to re-create what the officer had the ability to see, plus the evidence the officer was presented with to prompt the use of deadly force. Doug Jordan, a detective and certified reconstructionist with the Eugene (Oregon) Police Department, agrees with this contention, but also notes that there typically is a lot of time — as much as 4 hours — lost between the conclusion of a shooting incident and when reconstructionists arrive at the scene to diagram it. Once the crime scene can be accessed, proper diagramming requires placing everyone in his or her place, and determining bullet trajectories and officer placement in the scene based on shell casings. "That's impossible to do unless you have access to those people involved in the shooting," Jordan says. Such access is rarely immediate since there is considerable emotional trauma for officers directly involved in a shooting incident that turns deadly, and because the officers may be unavailable. "We're working on protocol [for the Eugene PD] to shorten that time frame so we can get basic information right away," Jordan adds.

Better documentation needed

     Officer-involved shooting incidents are inherently different from any other shooting because the officer has decided to shoot a suspect, and because the crime scene soon can become very busy and complex. Matt Noedel of the Association of Crime Scene Reconstruction says, "The officer in an officer-involved shooting has a higher set of rules associated with what he must do, which means we must provide a higher level of documentation. We know that officer-involved shootings will be scrutinized at two or more levels."

     Noedel, a Forensic Scientist III with the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab and a member of the patrol's crime scene response team, considers officer-involved shooting scenes among the most challenging to reconstruct. The chief reason is that these crime scenes often comprise multiple locations as a result of a car chase, altercations with gunfire in various locales, and even foot chases. "Shots can be fired at any of these locations," Noedel says. "Ultimately, what we want to do is reconstruct the actions and see if they match what the officer's recollection is and what the scene looked like." Fortunately, Noedel points out, a huge benefit of building a 3D diagram for crime scenes, such as officer-involved shootings, is that a reconstructionist can create different scenarios. "By troubleshooting these scenarios," Noedel says, "you can see which scenarios are likely and which are unlikely."

     During such high-stress, dynamic shooting incidents, the recollections of both police officers and witnesses (if any are available) can be sketchy or simply unreliable. This explains why crime scene investigators must approach an officer-involved shooting scene with an icy objectivity. "You can't assume it's a good shoot," notes Mike Haag, also a member of the Association of Crime Scene Reconstruction. "The physical evidence has to tell the story. You have to be open to it." Haag, a forensic firearms examiner and member of the major crime scene team with the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, agrees with Noedel that officer-involved shooting scenes must be investigated carefully and meticulously. However, what makes a difference in the investigation, he feels, is how many gunshots were fired, people killed, types of guns used, and even the number of bullet ricochets that occurred versus bullets that came to rest inside a building wall or other objects. These are crucial details that can be incorporated into an automated diagram of the scene.

Mapping trajectories is tricky

     Cars used in officer-involved shooting scenes can add another layer of complexity, says Haag. "Cars can throw a huge kink into things in several respects, especially if you've got shots into the car and they don't perforate or hit anything else," Haag explains. "The whole crime scene has moved, leading to quite a few complex things. If a car is de-accelerating or accelerating in a rapid way, or turning rapidly, this can change the accuracy and precision with which you can address trajectories into the car." Mapping trajectories can be additionally difficult since it may be unclear as to whether a suspect was advancing toward an officer with a gun or fleeing.

     Because of these challenges with diagramming a shooting scene, Haag considers 3D diagramming an invaluable tool for crime scene reconstruction. "Scenes that would have taken us a day to diagram — like a huge parking lot with a running gun battle — can now be documented and diagrammed within one quarter of this time depending upon the kind of scene," he notes. And, he adds, 3D depictions of details in crime scene diagrams are becoming more integral to effective jury presentations. Haag predicts this trend will continue.

3D bullet trajectory
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