Mock crime scene sharpens police skills

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: August 11, 2006

OHATCHEE – Police in Ohatchee rushed to the site of the old fire department Wednesday and discovered a bullet-riddled car and a trail of blood that led to a chaotic scene inside.

Sort of.

The entire “crime scene” was staged by the Ohatchee Police Department and Jacksonville Crime Lab, although the drivers rubbernecking on Alabama 144 didn’t know that.

The mock crime scene was part of a day-long training program for police from Ohatchee and many other departments around the state and from as far away as Tennessee.

It is important for officers to be well versed in collecting and processing evidence because they are often the first responders to crimes, said Mark Hopwood, director of the Jacksonville Crime Lab.

“These are the guys answering the 911 calls that walk up, they’re the first ones there,” Hopwood said. “(The officer has to make sure) he hasn’t contaminated anything and he’s not stepping on the bloody shoeprints or whatever.”

All officers take a crime-scene course at the police academy and have to complete 12 hours of continuing education annually, which could include this training session.

Ohatchee Police Chief Wayne Chandler said he thinks ongoing training is essential for officers. He added that he wanted to make the course affordable, charging $25 per officer, even though he has seen similar classes advertised for as much as several hundred dollars per participant.

“I think (crime scene investigation) is a skill that we need to put a lot of emphasis on here, it’s very critical to a successful investigation of a crime and prosecution of a defendant,” Chandler said. “If you fail to process the scene well and do a good job, it could result in a person who’s guilty going free.”

Indeed, during the morning’s classroom session Hopwood emphasized the importance of crime-scene processing in an overall investigation. He said the Calhoun County district attorney likes to utilize physical exhibits such as photographs and sketches in the courtroom.

Common errors, Hopwood said, include cross-contamination of different pieces of evidence, not collecting a large enough sample, not obtaining a standard of comparison and not maintaining a chain of custody for the evidence.

Advances in technology also mean that officers have to be more careful at crime scenes.

“If you sneeze on a crime scene you’re leaving your DNA there,” Hopwood said. “Technology’s got that far now, as opposed to 20 years ago (when) no one had ever heard of a DNA databank or a firearms databank.”

The day’s activities started with classroom instruction, including a slide-show presentation. Hopwood, whose office provides forensic investigation for nine counties in northeast Alabama, outlined a case in which a crime was reported in Piedmont, the victim’s body was found in Cherokee County, and his head – which had been severed with a chainsaw – was found in the river in Gadsden.

Hopwood said one of the goals of the program was to show officers how his lab can help them and also how they can help the lab when collecting evidence.

After lunch, the officers hopped in their cruisers and headed over to the old fire department on Alabama 144. There, they found a beat-up Lincoln Continental – donated by a local auto mechanic and shot to pieces by Ohatchee officers – and, inside the building, splatters of “blood” on the floor.

The investigators split into teams to examine the car, the building and the perimeter, and got to work setting up the police tape. Several people headed over to check out the car; the next group noticed that the first had nearly walked over a shell casing, which they promptly circled with orange spray paint.

Officers engaged in some friendly competition, calling out, “You painted this (bullet) orange!” and joking, “We found O.J.’s glove,” but they approached the task energetically in the 100-degree heat, circling every soda can, cigarette butt and footprint in sight.

Capt. Ellison Beggs of the Birmingham Police Department called the course “excellent.”

“For me a lot of it was refresher, but I also have a new understanding of what’s available, what the state has to offer, the services, the facilities, the new techniques they can provide, and after 29 years things do improve,” she said.

Chandler said he thinks there is a need for more of this kind of training.

“You can pretty well see by the response we got to this class that it’s something there’s a great deal of interest in,” he said. “This kind of class is something that every officer needs, because that evidence he collects must be admissible in court and it’s critical to the prosecutor.”

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