Checking your list, and checking it twice

Checklists and logs for the crime scene photographer

Checklists. Airline pilots use them, mechanics use them, software programmers use them, building inspectors use them, 911 dispatchers who deliver lifesaving advice use them.

Law enforcement officials also see their share of checklists from crime and death scene task records to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs lists. Even operations plans used in the execution of search warrants and high-risk arrests contain lists of necessary equipment for the task or operation at hand. These task records, as well as the other paperwork law enforcement produces on a daily basis, are the "rarely if ever seen" aspects of the job depicted on TV shows. Of course, the professionals portrayed on the latest TV crime drama only have one hour to solve three or four homicides. With the crime scene techs photographing and processing the scene, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and processing all of the evidence back at the lab, it's easy to see why there simply isn't enough time left for the paperwork. But in real life these checklists are a critical aspect of the law enforcement function, especially when it comes to crime scene photography.

Why a photo log or checklists?

Photography logs and checklists provide valuable information when crime scene photographers are called to testify at trial regarding the authenticity of the photos. For a crime scene photograph to be admissible in court, it must:

  • be relevant to the case at hand,
  • not be unduly prejudicial to the defendant, and
  • be authentic — the evidence is what the proponent claims it to be.

The relevancy and prejudicial aspect of the photo or image will be decided by the courts, but crime scene photographers hold sole responsibility for an image's authenticity. This authentication occurs through their testimony and the accurate documentation of their actions.

There is a saying in law enforcement that if it isn't in writing, it did not happen. It also is a well-known fact that when law enforcement officials can testify and show documentation illustrating that something is done the same way every time, they are less likely to fall under scrutiny from lawyers, judges and the public. Judges also will, at times, take judicial notice of an expert's qualifications and abilities, and cut defense attorneys off at the knees when they begin to badger this expert on the witness stand.

These facts alone prove the value of photo logs and checklists.

Consider this in the checklist

Most crime scene photographers have their equipment packaged and ready to go at a moment's notice. But do they have a checklist to run through before, during and after shooting the photographs? Some of these suggestions may seem like a no-brainer, but there are many times when law enforcement photographers, or any photographers for that matter, shoot a picture then realize they forgot to turn on the flash, set their shutter speed at an appropriate speed to synchronize with the flash, loaded 100 ISO film and had the camera set for 400 ISO film, and so on.

A very competent and top-rate crime scene tech, using a 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) manual film camera, once requested a new camera from me due to a shutter problem. The experienced tech shot a dark crime scene using a flash. When the photos came back from the lab, only the bottom half of the picture developed; the top half of the photo was black. The tech was convinced the camera shutter was broken or sticking. I opened the camera and checked the shutter operation; it was fine. I then checked the camera's shutter speed setting. The tech had set the shutter speed to 500th of a second and the shutter flash sync speed of that particular camera was 125th of second or lower. A photography checklist could have helped alleviate this problem.

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