The Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office has one of the biggest mobile labs in the country. PHOTO COURTESY BROWARD COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
The success of mobile labs is prompting many agencies to look at setting up their own. PHOTO COURTESY FARBER SPECIALTY VEHICLE
The u.s. department of agriculture’s rural development program is a potential source of grant dollars for mobile labs.
PHOTO COURTESY FARBER SPECIALTY VEHICLE
FEATURED IN INVESTIGATION
The call came in at 0142 hrs. A nighttime jogger had stumbled on more than a crack in the sidewalk as she raced through the park. A dead woman lay prone in the bushes on the side of the path. Covered in blood, a footprint stamped in the mud by her face, the young woman was forever muted, but the tale of the events that led to her being left there lay close by. As officers and technicians moved around the scene, bagging her hands, carefully collecting hair, fibers and swabs of blood, and pouring casting mud into the print, her story could still be told. Crime lab technicians would analyze the evidence left at the scene and the words the woman could no longer form would be resurrected.
Anyone who watches television or movies or reads anything from novels to the newspaper can attest to the importance crime scene analysis plays in modern law enforcement. Many departments have large, elaborate labs set up with experienced professionals on staff. Everyone has a job, and the amount of evidence that comes through the lab is astounding. Every crime scene tells a tale and these professionals sort through the narrative and put the pieces together to make up the novel.
But what happens when a crime lab isn't available? Evidence still exists. Crimes still occur. Juries still expect to hear physical evidence at trial. Many rural departments struggle with the necessity of the crime lab and a lack of adequate resources. Fortunately, several have designed creative ways to get the required analyses, including banding together to stop the closure of labs, operating mobile crime labs, utilizing collaborative organizations and training their own personnel.
Closure Wasn't an Option
A crime lab within reasonable distance especially benefits rural agencies. Labs provide forensic analysis, but equally as important, education and consultation. "I think regionalization of labs is a good way to go," states David Stephens, Director of the Michigan State Police Marquette Crime Lab which serves law enforcement in the Upper Peninsula (UP). "If we didn't have the regional labs and had to centralize, you're not going to have that interaction with agencies."
The smallest of seven Michigan labs, the Marquette lab covers the largest geographical area, nearly one-third of the state. With a staff of eight, the lab sees approximately 100 cases each month. The lab is able to analyze "anything you can touch or hold," says Stephens. "Typically finger prints, serology, suspected drugs, and all kinds of trace evidence, such as hairs, fibers and firearms evidence. Any test that helps the trier effect, usually the jury. I think that's important. It helps clarify what the information is so they can make an informed decision." Ironwood Public Safety sends ten to twelve cases to the lab per month. "(We send) anything and everything," Director Robert Erspamer states. All the tests are important, but DNA tests for sexual assault are especially necessary for Ironwood. Escanaba Public Safety, another small agency in the UP also relies on the Marquette lab. "We use the labs to do our serology examinations, examinations for toxicology in cases where we are involved in the cause of death, firearm examinations, fingerprinting, tool marks, handwriting examples all those forensics you look for in a crime scene investigation," Director Jed Hansen explains. "If you are a small agency and you don't have your own crime scene people, the lab will go out and do the crime scene for you." The lab also provides polygraph services and a bomb squad.
Having a regional lab helps ease back-log. "In computer forensic exams a lot of the examination is the computer hard drive," Hansen explains. "There is about an 18-month to 2-year wait. The shear volume has exploded on us. If my nearest lab is Grayling (400 miles away), perhaps it's going to affect the efficiency of the operations here. Sending someone to Marquette, it's not a big inconvenience, but to Grayling ruins the whole day. If you close the lab, the lab you're going to has twice the work load, so whatever wait time you had is going to double. However far out you are to scheduling a polygraph, it will double. If you took Marquette's work load and dumped it on Graying, you'd overwhelm them." "Many times evidence is fragile or the time frame they have for turn-around is short," Stephens adds. "For example, in a drug investigation, if they make a buy, they need an arrest warrant to make a bust at a residence. They have a quick turn-around, so the people don't leave or get rid of the drugs. If you don't have a local lab that time frame gets extended." Spreading the workload among several labs is important, but personnel also offer court testimony.
"I have 2-3 hours in any direction for an examiner to go to court," says Stephens. That time means they are off the bench. They are not doing any work at the lab. It increases the backlog." Lab testimony is imperative in today's justice system. "It is more important than ever," Stephens explains. "The general public and jurors watch a lot of (CSI) shows and a lot are factual but some are dramatic. There is an expectation there is going to be evidence presented at these trials."
Hansen agrees. "It's the "CSI" jury effect. Juries expect these lab results and prosecutors are certainly hesitant to go to trail with a connect-the-dot case. Juries want the DNA and the absolutes."
In 2007, the Michigan State Legislature discussed shutting down the Marquette lab. Agencies fought the closure. Losing the lab would be detrimental for a number of reasons. "There won't be a local resource for officers to contact, no local lab to respond to the scene and no local experts for court appearances," Stephens explains. "We are involved in instructing those we work with at the local law enforcement agencies. The education aspect is important. Our lab services a lot of small agencies. The smaller the agencies, the less experience they will have with a major crime. Having a good relationship with the lab people is a good resource. We go back and forth with a lot of communication."
"We in law enforcement in the UP, in general, look out for each other because we don't have a lot of resources," Hansen says. "We share resources. We share people. We do whatever we have to to get things done up here. We're pretty defensive of the resources we have up here. When you threaten closure, we rally together." Erspamer agrees, "Crime labs are probably even more important in smaller departments. It is near impossible to have trained staff and resources that bigger cities have to deal with major crimes. These crimes are rare in rural areas, but when they do occur, it is just as important that the crime scene and the evidence be processed correctly." Michigan eventually dropped the idea of closing the Marquette lab saving this precious resource.
Crime Lab on Wheels
Although access to a lab within reasonable distance is not a problem for the Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office (BCSO), the department took a proactive stance in decreasing personnel response time and backlog. In 1990, BCSO drew up plans to launch a mobile crime lab resulting in a 25' Grumman rolling out in 1995. Then, in 1998, the plans for a 40' technological marvel on wheels were created, and in April 2002, it became a reality as one of the largest mobile crime labs in the country. Funded by Law Enforcement Trust Fund monies approved by the County Commission, the BCSO mobile crime lab is available 24/7 to assist all BCSO districts and serves most of the Broward county municipalities and federal and state agencies in the tri-county area.
The back portion of the vehicle is the command center. Equipped with cell phone technology, it can remain on scene to serve the administrative component of an investigation. "We use the same technology as the Department of Defense," states BCSO Deputy Chief Stewart Mosher. "Except they use satellite and we use cell phones."
The middle portion of the unit serves as the comfort component for the officers, many of whom work overtime at the scene of a major investigation. It is a place to take a breather and includes a refrigerator and microwave.
As necessary as the command and comfort centers are, it's the front portion that makes the vehicle the unique resource that it is. The mobile crime lab is fully equipped with most of the investigative equipment found in a stationary crime lab. It also has the largest forensic argon-ion laser in the Southeast, used to locate fingerprints and other important evidence.
The lab has equipment to analyze evidence from serology to fingerprints. Ballistics can also be done. The cell phone connections in the laboratory allow personnel on scene to connect with the physical lab to get a second opinion. "Verification can be done onsite," says Mosher. "We had a homicide this morning and we had to compare bullet evidence." Using the technology on board, the investigators made the comparisons, got another opinion and made a positive identification, all without leaving the scene.
In addition to their 40' marvel, the agency has two small Ford F350s available, designated for dealing with homeland security issues and weapons of mass destruction. "When the idea began, I thought it would be icing on the cake," Mosher states. "Now I don't see how we did it without it." Although an officer has to be pulled from the street to run the unit, "it's worth it as far as not having to send someone to the physical (crime lab) location," Mosher explains.
Due to the success of mobile crime labs, including BCSO's, many other agencies plan to design and activate their own. Garrett County, Md, was awarded grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development this summer to purchase and equip a four-wheel drive vehicle as a mobile crime lab. The Garrett County Sheriff's Office (GCSO) currently relies on the Maryland State Police's mobile crime lab and the GCSO decided it needed its own due to extended wait times, especially in remote areas. The Rural Development program designates grants to help with essential services and infrastructure improvements in rural areas. This way, agencies struggling with resources and budget constraints might still be able to operate a mobile crime lab.
Crime Lab & Forensics Resources
- National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) www.nlectc.org Oversees the Forensics Technologies Center of Excellence.
- Justice Technology Information Center www.justnet.org
Provides information on forensic NIJ technology programs, publications, funding sources, government Web sites, professional association Web sites and presentations.
- National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C) www.nw3c.org
Offers training, research, investigative support, partnerships and further resources.
- E-Grants Initiative www.grants.org
Allows users to find, apply and track government grants.
- Rural Computer Forensics Laboratory www.rcfl.org
A one stop, full service forensics laboratory and training center combining the expertise of federal, state and local law enforcement. Focuses on providing up-to-date resources and training opportunities.
- Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program (CEDAP)
Assists smaller jurisdictions attain equipment including communications operability, information sharing, chemical detection, sensors and personal protection equipment. Offers training and funding focusing on small departments.
- Rural Law Enforcement Technology Center (RULETC) www.ruletc.org
Provides technology and technical solutions to rural and small agencies.
All the Info in One Place
Since 2002, Iowa State University has run the Ames Laboratory, a program that assists local law enforcement agencies in connecting to the resources they need. "We work in partnership with crime laboratories in the area for training research, infrastructure management and technology," says David Baldwin, director of the Midwest Forensics Resource Center (MFRC). "What we have put together is a program wherein (there is) a partnership of the directors with the crime laboratories. If (a lab) needs assistance in an area and there is common interest, we find those resources for them." Casework assistance is one area that's commonly addressed. "If there is something the crime laboratories don't do, and they come upon a need, we help them gain access to those people that do what they are looking for," Baldwin says. So, if a small agency doesn't have access to someone who does footprint comparisons, the MFRC can put them in touch with someone who does.
Training is also a large part of the mission of MFRC. "We run about one training program per month," Baldwin explains. "It's fully paid through National Institute of Justice (NIJ) funding. We finished a course yesterday on process management and implementation of change in crime laboratories, including process mapping and process improvement. The week before we did a training program with questioned document exams. It's a program that transfers knowledge from very experienced people to people fairly new in the field."
MFRC also focuses on research and development, with the goal of gathering tools to assist rural departments. Online communication, such as that used in the BCSO mobile crime lab, is one of the current projects. Baldwin is hoping the new technology will be a tool for small labs. The technology will allow "a very small lab in one state which might only have one person and allow (them to have) a peer review online with a larger lab," explains Baldwin. Working with agencies in a 13-state region and pooling resources together in one place can assist in a wide variety of ways.
Training Our Own
Taking advantage of training programs, like those offered by MFRC, allows many small agencies to train their own personnel in evidence analysis. "If there's something (agencies) call up and ask for, we'll find a way to bring that training to the region," says Baldwin. "Most of the training was on the coasts. It's difficult for agencies to have people go. Even if it already exists, we'll find that training and bring it to the region."
In BCSO, the officers assigned to the mobile crime lab volunteered to cross-train in forensic analysis. They eventually became the scientists for the officers in the field. "We now have a trained computer forensic technician on staff," Erspamer says. "The officer was sent to a six-week school and can now process computers for evidence of child pornography or other evidence of crimes. The backlog for the crime lab for computers was 12 months or more (before)." More and more agencies continue to look for training programs to get their officers certified to run evidence tests and testify in court.
The "CSI" effect has swept the nation, but long before television shows brought evidence into our homes, the need for efficient and effective crime scene forensic analysis existed. "I think it's critical to have a local or regional service available for agencies, no matter where they are," explains Stephens. "The most important thing to do is to be listening to what your partners are asking for," says Baldwin. "We knew it was an underserved need and by treating it as a partnership all along, we've been very successful."
As technology continues to improve and science advances, crime scene investigations and analysis will need to keep up. Finding ways to make sure rural agencies aren't left behind is an issue of importance to every agency. "Crime labs are probably even more important in rural, smaller departments," Erspamer concludes. "It's near impossible to have trained staff and resources that bigger cities have (for dealing) with major crimes, such as CSCs (sexual assaults), homicides, etc. These crimes are rare in rural areas, but when they do occur it is just as important that the crime scene and the evidence be processed correctly." No matter where the incident occurs, crime victims' stories still need be heard.
Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix Police Department for eight years. She is currently working on her M.A. in Criminology from Indiana State University. Traveling extensively and having lived in both a city of 2.5 million with 4,000 officers and a village of 2,500 with one officer, she understands the needs of both rural and urban police departments. Visit her Web site at www.thewritinghand.net.