Working a Crime Scene

 Tips for Securing, Preserving and Collecting Evidence


Counties that properly secure, preserve and collect evidence as it relates to use of force or custodial death investigations in their correctional facilities may reduce liabilities, according to Gary Henderson (below), Texas Association of Counties Law Enforcement Consultant.

Henderson gave tips for doing so in his presentation, “Preserving Evidence through Post-Incident Investigation,” which he delivered during the County Management and Risk Conference, held April 5-7 in San Marcos.

Henderson has decades of experience in law enforcement. In addition to serving as Hemphill County sheriff from 2005-2011, he worked for 31 years for the Texas Department of Public Safety as a Texas Ranger and Texas Ranger sergeant. He also served as an investigator for the 31st and 223rd District Attorney’s Office and on then-Go v. George W. Bush’s protective detail.

His presentation included several important tips for working crime scenes. Here are a few key takeaways:

Securing and Protecting the Crime Scene

* The first officer on the scene should remove any threat to the responding officers and inmates. 
* Secure the crime scene by ensuring that no one enters it until the lead investigator arrives. The only exception would be for the preservation of life. Realize that emergency medical services personnel may alter the crime scene.
* Determine to which extent the scene has thus far been protected.
* Set up an entry/exit log to ensure adequate scene security.
* Keep out unauthorized personnel.
* Use a disposable or digital camera to photograph the scene as it initially appears. Take photographs from multiple perspectives including overview photos of the whole scene, midrange photos and close-up photos. “Our juries are very visual today,” Henderson said. Take photos to illustrate details that may be presented in a trial.
* Watch where you step as you examine the scene and remember -  you will always take something into the scene and take something out. You might track something in or out on the soles of your shoes, or your clothes drop fibers on the scene.
* It is critical to protect the integrity of the crime scene. “Give away the integrity of your crime scene and you will not get it back,” Henderson said.

Gary-Henderson-005.pngInvestigating the Crime Scene

* Be sure your crime scene search is a planned and coordinated legal search to locate physical evidence or witnesses to the crime under investigation. If the search isn’t legally conducted, “We might as well not conduct one at all,” Henderson said. “We’re going to lose all the evidence and all of our effort goes for nothing.”
* A good search determines what happened and whether a crime was even committed. “Things are not always what they appear to be,” Henderson said. “I’ve been in a lot of situations where things appeared to be a crime, but it was actually a natural cause (death).”
* Search to determine where the crime was committed. “Where you find the body is not always where the crime was committed,” he said.  
* Use your common sense. Aim to answer who, what, when, where, why and how. “If you answer those questions in any situation you’re probably going to be fairly successful,” Henderson said. “It’s not that easy, but if you can get them all answered you are well on your way to a successful investigation.”
* Without a good crime scene investigation, you likely won’t have a (criminal) case or a conclusion to whatever investigation you’re doing (such as a suicide investigation).
* Good crime scene investigations provide you with the knowledge to determine if the suspect and witnesses are telling the truth. 
* Take your time. Spend many hours on the investigation. Keep revisiting the scene with fresh eyes. “Walk, do not run,” Henderson said. “What you see is not always what you get. Don’t take the scene at face value. Keep an open mind. Look for what you do not see. Always question yourself. ”
* Be sure to look up, down and all around the scene for evidence.
* Take extensive notes, he said. “Don’t rely upon your memory.” 
* Does the crime scene match the crime? Pay attention to blood flow and post mortem lividity, determine if the body has been moved and think about what is missing from the scene.
* Does the crime scene match what your suspect and witnesses are telling you? Repeatedly interview people related to the situation. See if their responses are the same. If they are lying, their stories may change upon retelling.
*If you have a suspect or witness who is following you around, they may have something to hide. Your witness might turn out to be your suspect.

Preserving and Collecting Items of Evidence

* Do not alter the crime scene. “If you’ve altered it, you must explain it,” Henderson said. “What you do today may have to be explained in court a year from now, or maybe 29 years later.” 
* Don’t touch the body. Let the medical examiner do all examinations of the body.
* Photograph any notes left behind and then preserve them for fingerprinting. Don’t contaminate such evidence with your fingerprints. 
* Always wear gloves. “Change gloves after each incident where you handle a piece of evidence,” Henderson said. “It preserves the integrity of the scene.”
* Don’t undo knots. Photograph them and then cut them so they can be kept for evidence.
* Process one piece of evidence at a time. “Photograph it, identify it, collect it,” he said. “Tag it as a piece of evidence before moving on. Put the date, time, officer’s initials and where the evidence was recovered.”
* Any evidence with potential DNA value must be placed in a paper bag, instead of plastic, so it won’t degrade. Don’t place more than one piece of evidence in a bag.
* Create an evidence log for notes, photographs, etc.
“Remember, you only have one chance to do it right,” Henderson said in conclusion. “You’re going to have 12 to 15 or 24 hours to work that scene, but a defense attorney has two years to tear it apart. You only get one shot at it. Let’s do it with integrity and with hard work.” 


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