MISSION POSSIBLE: Forensics for Small to Mid-Sized Departments

p>When it comes to evidence, complicated cases can certainly challenge the resources of small to mid-sized departments. Many of these agencies are already so strapped for personnel they routinely stack calls for service, which makes it difficult to justify spending scant resources on "luxuries" such as forensic personnel and equipment.

But with state and metro labs backed up for months — even years — and the problem growing worse each day, agency heads have come to realize forensic units are a bonus, regardless of department size. While it's not likely a 30-man force would tackle DNA analysis, there are plenty of areas where it pays to train crime scene processors and provide them with the tools they need. By doing so, agencies can steer case resolution into a faster lane.

Start with the basics

As the saying goes — begin at the beginning. Train officers to do the simplest tasks in the forensic toolbox and the benefits will accrue immediately.

Scott Barker, deputy director of the Rural Law Enforcement Technology Center in Hazard, Kentucky, says it's easy and inexpensive to outfit an officer for fingerprint and simple evidence collection. An even better alternative, he says, is to train several officers and buy basic equipment from a discount store.

"Rulers, tapes and bags," Barker counts off tools which can be purchased locally and on the cheap. "Make a crime scene collection kit." Although some items out of necessity must be purchased from specialty companies, another major component of the evidence technician's trade — inexpensive, rugged, digital cameras — can be found almost any place that sells consumer electronics.

Digital cameras make good crime scene photography much easier, particularly since there's no film to develop or pictures to print. In the past, photo labs were both expensive and difficult to maintain, but they were a crucial link in the chain of custody. Digital photography has changed all that. And, as an added plus, crime scene photos can be reviewed and critiqued right on the scene — a good way to train an officer to take appropriate and accurate photographs, as well as ensure photographic integrity.

Crunching the numbers

How many officers should agencies train to handle simple crime scene processing? That would depend on the jurisdiction, crime rate and number of sworn officers. A sleepy village with scant crime and a handful of police might need a single technician. A 50-officer department with criminal investigations and drug divisions may consider multiple technicians, so a processor is on duty at almost all times.

Barker says to choose candidates for these positions based upon their career interests. Crime scene processing can be tedious and detail oriented, and requires excellent organizational and observational skills. Remember, too, the person who collects and/or processes evidence will spend a lot of time on the witness stand. Be certain the officer is up to the challenge. Choosing an officer who is impatient, turns in sloppy or incomplete paperwork or who is uninterested in the crime itself also could lead to a poor match.

In addition to training in basic crime scene skills, agencies may want to take a look at their own individual crime rates. Is the area a magnet for car thieves? Does the incidence of violent crime run high? Is there an excessive number of serious and/or fatal accidents within the agency's jurisdictional boundaries? Don't take a one-size-fits-all approach. If a certain type of incident is prevalent, consider augmenting the basic scene processing with specialized or advanced training specifically geared toward the agency's needs. Barker suggests a simple two or three extra weeks of instruction, but doesn't recommend that smaller agencies invest too heavily in the concept.

"You're fighting for high-priority items," he says. "When thinking about officer safety, crime scene processing takes second priority. Train them to pick up, preserve and go on." In short, delve into a little specialization only if the agency can afford to go there.

Another option for agencies caught in a manpower and/or money crunch is to join forces with surrounding jurisdictions to form regional response teams. Each participant provides team member(s) with varying skills. The team responds to call-outs from all the agencies represented. Plus, with the smaller commitment of manpower from departments, more in-depth training — and skills — are available to even the tiniest agency represented on the team.

The piggy bank

Running a law enforcement agency isn't cheap. With budget cuts capping off rising costs in gasoline, equipment and personnel, funding special training and equipment isn't high on any department's agenda. There are some resources available, however.

First, justify the need for immediate crime scene processing by crunching the numbers. While processing crime scenes or evidence may not save in real dollars, it will save in other ways:

  • Early collection and processing allows investigators to see a more coherent picture, instead of bits and pieces of the puzzle.
  • Because investigators have more information at their disposal early in the case, it may lead to quicker resolutions. That prevents more crime.
  • In addition, the time from collection to arrest to trial can lessen, which saves the department money in terms of man-hours.

Jim McKinney, a lawenforcement training instructor at the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training says there are several ways to find funding:

  • Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC): Consider joining this task force model, which combines federal, state and local efforts and targets sexual predators. "Training, equipment and other resources may be available for participating agencies," McKinney says.
  • Computer Forensics: McKinney says, "A small agency that decides to move in the direction of computer investigations may want to take a look at training opportunities with little or no costs." It's not unusual for state law enforcement training facilities, such as Kentucky's, to offer free or low-cost instruction. Also, McKinney says, the National White Collar Crime Center has courses in both computer investigation and forensics at no charge.
  • Grants: Grants ebb and flow with the times. It's best to check with local, state and federal grant sources and see what's available. McKinney notes that some states also have grant specialists who help agencies find money.
  • Regional or multi-agency task forces: Don't forget this one. Task forces combining multiple local agencies can reduce costs for individual departments.

Barker adds that many cities and counties are more disposed to granting requests for an additional $6,000 to $8,000 — more than enough to fund a fledging forensics unit. "When you hit $10,000," he says, "that's about the ceiling for a small agency."

What's so special about specialization?

Criminal justice experts agree even very modest departments benefit from training select officers to collect evidence. But agencies that depend mostly on the largesse of nearby jurisdictions for crime scene processing may not fully understand why it's important. Consider what could happen if outside help was withdrawn. By training one or two officers in the basics — no need to get fancy right at the beginning — agencies are not only prepared for the times they're on their own, but may find it works to their advantage. It might even inspire them to consider training a specialist to meet critical departmental needs. For example, look at agencies such as the Grand Chute (Wisconsin) Police Department, which put that principle into action.

Chief Ed Kopp says Grand Chute is one of 13 communities, including Appleton, in the valley area southwest of Green Bay. Serving a total population of about 300,000, local agencies work together in a number of special units.

Some of these communities are primarily residential. Others are a traditional mixture of businesses and homes. But Kopp's jurisdiction, Grand Chute, has its own unique challenges.

"A very large percentage of our area is commercial," Kopp says. "Lots of businesses and companies and computer stores are in this town." Grand Chute's composition affected the types of crimes the city experienced. "What was happening was an explosion of tech and computer-related crime."

Kopp says state crime labs were running six months behind on computer forensics investigations. "Even something as simple as child pornography — the crime lab took six months to a year to even examine [the evidence]."

When the department sent a business computer to the lab, the business had to operate around the lab's schedule. "We decided there had to be a better way," Kopp says.

Kopp discussed it with one of his investigators — an experienced officer open to new opportunities — and decided to train him to handle the department's computer forensics investigations. The department also purchased needed equipment. Now, instead of confiscating a hard drive and sending it off, Grand Chute makes a mirror image of the hard drive and analyzes that. Grand Chute also does some computer forensics work for nearby Appleton, for which Appleton compensates the smaller town.

While it's cut down on how long it takes to process computer evidence, the venture is also a serious commitment for Grand Chute. With only 27 full-time officers, Kopp wants maximum efficiency when he deploys personnel. He believes the return he and the Grand Chute taxpayers receive from on-site computer forensics to be well worth the time and expense — even factoring in annual retraining fees and equipment upgrades.

"You need to find out what's the benefit to your community — are you going to get enough of [these cases] to make it worthwhile? If you only deal with a few computers a year, you're better off letting the state crime lab do it," Kopp says.

When deciding to go the same route as Grand Chute, make sure officers are fully trained. Sending an officer to a three-day course is likely to produce more problems than it solves. In a complicated field like computer forensics, the old saying about a little knowledge being dangerous goes double.

Wrapping it up

The media loves a good crime story. Shows based on forensics — both real-life and fictional — are enormously popular and spur the imaginations of the public served by real police officers. And that's both good and bad.

While greater exposure for the forensic sciences via television shows like "CSI" has broadened public interest in evidence collection and evaluation techniques, it also works against the police. As Barker puts it, "It's a double-edged sword because people normally think we are more capable than we often are."

Misconceptions or not, the high level of interest in forensics can also provide impetus for departments trying to secure local funding. To get the ball rolling, Barker advises to research what comparable departments are doing.

"Find other agencies that have blazed the trail for you," Barker says. "Ask them, 'How did you do this? What worked for you?' " See what's been successful and what hasn't. City councilmen want to hear about the experiences of others.

As far as the future is concerned, Barker believes technology will help smaller and mid-sized agencies keep pace with the big boys. He notes that technological advances have already begun to level the playing field and believes there are even bigger strides to be made.

"In four or five years drug identification will be just like alcohol [field tests]," Barker predicts. "The technology is there — just give it time. It will take a big load off the state crime labs."

In the meantime, training officers to handle field evidence duties will pave the way for police agencies to deliver a better product to the lab, and that makes everyone a winner.