Making a Case for Better Scene Management

What the Hanover County Sheriff's Office learned from the D.C. sniper investigation


     In October 2002, several law enforcement agencies in the Washington, D.C., area were challenged to a new level when they had to manage scenes related to the D.C. sniper investigation. More than 20 local agencies ultimately became involved in the investigation, which provided unparalleled learning opportunities for other law enforcement agencies all over the country.

     The Hanover County (Virginia) Sheriff's Office was one such agency. The nearby community of Ashland became the site of the sniper's 13th crime in 15 days on October 19, 2002, and the sheriff's office soon learned what jurisdictions involved in the previous shootings had already confronted: Organizing and documenting the large number of people and multiple pieces of equipment at the sniper crime scenes was an overwhelming task. Prior to the scene in Hanover County, the agencies that had worked the 12 previous sniper scene investigations had to manage without a system in place to track the various law enforcement personnel entering and exiting the scene — some of the crime scenes had already involved as many as 300 investigators.

Call for solutions

     In 2004, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) issued a report on the D.C. sniper investigation which identified the many challenges agencies involved had faced. "Establishing, securing and managing crime scenes were enormous challenges for the local law enforcement agencies," the report said. "The demands grew with each successive shooting ... [and] the three greatest challenges for agencies were determining the size of the crime scene, managing and controlling law enforcement personnel and the media, and coordinating the resources of different agencies." The report categorized the challenges as "daunting."

     Not only was it difficult for the law enforcement agencies to manage the crime scenes, but it was also an overwhelming task to manage the information gathered throughout the various crime scene investigations. In the introduction of the report, a committee note addresses this challenge: "It was difficult to develop organizational charts and schematics of exactly how the case progressed. Some sniper case reviewers have asked us for a comprehensive graphic of how many resources were infused and from what sources, or even at what times in the case, but there was no such static structure."

     Identifying the lessons that could be learned from the sniper investigation was one of the primary goals of the PERF report. When the report was released, the Hanover County Sheriff's Office reviewed those lessons and used them to develop a plan to prepare for the challenges of managing future critical incident crime scenes.

     In 2005 the sheriff's office issued a call to software vendors across the country for a system that would give structure and organization to the office's emergency management procedures. FileOnQ, a Seattle, Washington-based software company, answered the call with its EvidenceOnQ management system, which met all the criteria the sheriff's office needed to manage critical incidents. Hanover County used funding from a Homeland Security grant to purchase the EvidenceOnQ system. They found that the system's flexibility and versatility provided solutions to additional information management problems within the department. As a result, the sheriff's office soon put the same EvidenceOnQ technology in place to manage routine crime scenes, evidence, and officer equipment.

     Hanover chose EvidenceOnQ because it is pliable and can meet the unique needs of each user. The home screen is designed to the specifications of the individual law enforcement agency and is customized specific to its functions within that agency. Every field on the database screen is user-configured, searchable, and can be modified by the user administrator. With this in mind, the sheriff's office created three distinct profiles for which it would use the system, and one of the profiles was designed for emergency management purposes, which would allow the department to track people and equipment at critical incident scenes.

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