Checking your list, and checking it twice

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.

The following are items to be considered when developing a photo log and crime scene photography checklist to use at the crime scene. This information should be incorporated into a photo log containing camera information and settings used at the time each photograph was shot.

Most necessary information for a photo log is incorporated into the Exif or Meta Data recorded in today's digital SLRs. Exif/Meta Data, which includes camera make, model, date, time, image number, lens focal length, aperture, shutter speed, white balance setting, shooting mode, image quality selection, image format and flash settings, are viewable and printable through the software included with the camera and in programs such as Adobe PhotoShop CS. The data also are recorded and archived with each image on the recording media and in subsequent transfer to CD/DVD or file server. The Exif/Meta Data is extremely useful in troubleshooting improperly exposed or apparent blurred images.

The right info for the job

What information should a photo log include? The date a crime took place and the case number. The photographer should also detail film speed, the number of exposures left on the roll, the film roll number, media type and size if using a digital camera, camera make and model, lens and lenses used, and shooting mode (auto/manual/shutter priority/aperture priority). For each photo the photographer should list the photo or image number, shutter speed selected, lens focal length, aperture, whether or not a flash was used, type of photo (overall, mid-range, close-up), whether or not a scale was used in the close-up photography, and a brief description of the photo or object photographed.

The rule of thumb when creating such a list for the crime scene photographer is to consider everything and then teach your photographers to check their list, and check it again, to make sure they cover all the bases before the first image is shot. Following the shoot and before departing the crime scene, an inventory of all equipment and paperwork should be in order. Most agencies have a payroll deduction plan for the replacement of forgotten, damaged or lost equipment attributed to negligence. This just happens to be one pay plan I do not wish to participate in.

Troy Lyons is a 17-year veteran with the York County/City of Poquoson (Virginia) Sheriff's Office, where he spent three years in the patrol division before being promoted to the investigations division. Lyons served as the agency's primary crime scene tech for seven years, processing and photographing hundreds of crime scenes with both film and digital SLR cameras. Lyons regularly teaches crime scene processing and scene photography. He can be reached at lyonst@yorkcounty.gov.

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