Cutbacks and the Death of Crime Scene Training
The present economy in America has seen many law enforcement agencies across the country having to do more with less. Budgets have been reduced, salaries have been cut, and some agencies have been required to layoff officers and suspend hiring.
If you have been around law enforcement for any length of time, you know one of the first items to be cut is the training budget. Even when times were good, I knew of only a few agencies that had unlimited training budgets that would allow their officers to attend schools anywhere at anytime. Those agencies are definitely the exception to the rule. When I was with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the training budget for one year in the detective division was $5,000.00. There were 166 detectives that wanted training, so needless to say, there was very little training going on.
Many crime scene processing techniques are perishable skills, and unless they are used often, they will be forgotten. So how do you obtain training when your department can’t afford it? I will give you a couple of options that worked for me. They may not work for everyone, but with some thought, you can enhance your abilities. It’s all up to you.
Option 1: If you can afford it, you can pay for your own training. You may not agree with that option, but it is still an option. Since training was very limited at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, I decided I would train myself by paying for some of my courses, the ones I was really interested in. Some years, I would schedule my vacation with a particular school and my wife and I would go. One year, we spent a week in Knoxville, at the University of Tennessee so I could work at the body farm, learning about entomology and the decomposition of bodies.
Option 2: This option is much easier on your wallet, and the advantages to your knowledge and experience cannot be measured. This option also requires a good deal of motivation because you are doing it on your own. But if you are someone who cares about the job, it will be well worth the effort. I decided to use property crimes like burglary and robbery as my personal training grounds. It is very easy to get into the habit of responding to a residential or business burglary and just throwing some black powder around, make a few tape lifts, and leave. I started to analyze the surfaces, so I could better understand what powder process worked best. I understood there were better choices than just conventional black powder. I used black powder on the glass surfaces; black magnetic powder on ceramic items, doors and counter tops; and I collected paper items for processing with black magnetic powder or chemical processing in the crime lab. I would use light energy in search of shoe impressions on all relevant surfaces. When I found some, I would use the electrostatic dust print lifter to recover them and then I would use magnetic powders to develop the impressions and recover with photography. A drawback with this type of training is the extra time on scene. It goes without saying you cannot do this on every call, so you must decide when the time is right. A positive with this type of training are the victims of the crime. The home or business owner only saw me taking my time and performing multiple processes. Although I really was searching for physical evidence that would solve their crime, my motivation was a purely selfish one. I even received a few complimentary letters that were written to my supervisor, thanking me for the wonderful job I did on their burglary or robbery.
Results: The kind of training you can perform at various crime scenes is proportional to the types of equipment you have available to you. The crime scene unit of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office received an alternate light source in March of 1993. The Polilight® made by Rofin, weighed about 25 pounds and had ten-quartz filters and a six-foot light guide. I was determined to learn this new piece of equipment and I especially liked the possibility of finding fingerprints with fluorescent fingerprint powders. I took the alternate light to many assorted crime scenes and practiced, even though I was made fun of for taking too long on a scene. All of my training paid off in November of 1993 at a homicide scene. Using the alternate light source, three latent bloody fingerprints were recovered on the skin of the victim. This was the very first body I had processed with an ALS and I ended up identifying a serial killer. This was the first known case in the world where latent fingerprints had been located and recovered from human skin using an ALS and photography. It is safe to say that had I not responded to that homicide scene on that day, the killer would have gone on killing, and who knows for how long. This is just one success of many as a direct result from my training. You too can have similar successes. It’s all up to you.
Editor's Note: There are other training sources available for crime scene personnel, but not all of them are well known to law enforcement administrators. For example, the National Forensic Academy provides a 10-week on-site training program that is available free to law enforcement personnel through funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. There are also online and on-site training courses available free to governmental employees as part of West Virginia University's Forensic Science Initiative. Thirdly, the National Institute of Justice has various training materials for forensic science posted online. Of course, there are also quite a few great books available that will teach you just about everything you'll ever need to know, but you have to make the commitment to spend time reading--and I spent many hours of my own time doing just that. There are other resources out there; you just have to seek them out!
Michael F. LaForte is a forensic consultant for Knox & Associates, LLC, a Jacksonville, Florida based forensic consulting company that specializes in firearms, ballistics, and crime scene reconstruction. He was a police officer/detective with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for over 29 years having worked in patrol, and crime scene investigations. In addition to being a major case crime scene detective, he spent the last three years as the training coordinator for the agency’s crime scene unit. He has also provided crime scene training in Peru, and around the United States. He has testified as an expert witness in crime scene reconstruction in state courts in Florida. He has authored three books on crime scene processing and crime scene photography.