Making a Case for Better Scene Management

     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.

     The sheriff's office houses the EvidenceOnQ system on a laptop computer, which can be used at any designated command post, whether it is mobile or not. In the event of a major emergency management situation, the database is used from the command post, regardless of how far away it is from the actual scene, to manage the people and equipment at the incident scene.

Managing the scene

     The system has allowed the sheriff's office to outline critical incident scene procedures. Upon arrival at the command post, for example, an individual presents his or her credentials, ID or badge to check in. The information is entered into EvidenceOnQ, along with a listing or description of that person's specific duties at the scene. A barcode label is generated and attached to the individual's existing ID or badge.

     Thanks to automated innovations such as this, gone one are the days of the officer stationed at the entrance of a scene, frantically scribbling on a yellow legal pad, trying to record all personnel entering and exiting a scene. Instead, individuals entering the scene can present their barcode to the perimeter security officer and the officer simply uses a portable barcode scanner to scan the ID badge. When a person is finished at the scene, the security officer scans a barcode titled "clear scene." The person then reports back to the command post to turn in his or her barcode. Equipment and supplies at major scenes can be documented in the same fashion.

     The data stored in the portable barcode scanner can be downloaded into the database at any time. Hanover County's automated crime and emergency scene management reduces chaos and disorganization at the scene and making information on the scene or attending personnel easier to retrieve. Because every field is searchable, there are few limits to the data that can be retrieved for on-site review or post-incident analysis.

Just what the Forum ordered

     The EvidenceOnQ system meets the goal criteria for a critical incident management system that were addressed in the PERF report about the D.C. Sniper Investigation. The report cited the following issues that a critical incident management system would need to address:

  1. planning and preparation
  2. defining roles and responsibilities
  3. managing information efficiently
  4. maintaining effective communications

     In addition, the PERF report specified that personnel would need to be comfortable with and well-versed in how to use the critical incident management system. "It is unrealistic to expect personnel to learn a new system in the middle of the crisis," the report said. "Individuals must be familiar with the systems they will use during the investigation, and ideally should employ the same system as they use every day."

     Because EvidenceOnQ is used on a daily basis by Hanover patrol, investigations, crime scene, evidence and administration personnel, they will not have to learn a new system in the midst of a crisis.

     Ultimately, the PERF called for a reform in emergency and crisis management so that law enforcement agencies would be prepared for the future.

     "It's not a question of if there will be another multi-agency investigation," Det. James Trainum of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department wrote. "It's a question of when and where."

     The Hanover County Sheriff's Office utilized the lessons they learned from their involvement with the D.C. Sniper Investigation to prepare for the future. The EvidenceOnQ system provided the agency with the tools necessary for future emergency management situations.

     Shannon Turner is a FileOnQ evidence specialist. She worked for 23 years in the State of Washington's criminal justice system, the last 10 as a police evidence technician and crime scene investigator.