MISSION POSSIBLE: Forensics for Small to Mid-Sized Departments

Complicated cases can challenge the resources of 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.

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