Crime scene preservation tips for corrections officers
Preserving evidence is critical for a successful prosecution
Correctional officers are an extended branch of the criminal justice system and face the same challenges as law enforcement officers on the street. One of those challenges is protecting a crime scene.
Why do we need a secure crime scene?
It is part of our duty to ensure we provide the criminal justice system with the evidence needed to lead to a conviction or an acquittal in a court of law.
Preserving critical DNA, blood splatters, weapons and any other evidence at a crime scene is critical for a successful prosecution.
How big should my crime scene be?
Every crime scene is different. Here is an example.
An inmate is sitting in the day room watching television. Another inmate starts to poke fun at the inmate and begins to harass him. The inmate being harassed stands up without saying a word and goes to his cell. Once in his cell, the inmate retrieves his hidden shank. He walks into the dayroom and behind the inmate who had harassed him. With his left arm and hand, he holds the sitting inmate in his chair. With his right hand, he begins to stab the other inmate all down the right side of his body. The victim inmate is able to break away and run out of the dayroom down the hallway past the officer’s station. At this point, the assailant catches the victim inmate again and stabs him directly in view of the correctional officer. The victim inmate breaks free again and holds himself up on the wall leaving a trail of blood on the wall and floor. The victim inmate makes it outside yelling for help. Once outside the assailant inmate gives the other inmate a fatal stab wound to the kidney area. The assailant then quickly buries the shank outside of the dorm and returns to his cell, laying in his bunk covered in blood.
Using this scenario above, which is a true story from Hendry Correctional Institution in Florida and a case I was assigned, let’s determine how big our crime scene should be and where our evidence is located.
We would need to first lock down the prison to ensure other inmates do not enter the crime scene. Simultaneously while locking down the prison, secure the entire dorm and the outside of the dorm with crime scene tape, barricades and assigned officers paying particular attention to three inner dorm crime scenes: the dayroom, the hallway leading past the officer to the front door and the suspect’s cell.
Next steps after securing the crime scene
Once the crime scene is secured, an officer who is not assigned to this particular dorm should be assigned as keeper of the security log. This officer will be instructed that only medical personnel and investigative personnel, which includes the crime scene technicians, are allowed in the crime scene area.
An officer should be posted outside the dorm entrances, at the hallway crime scene, dayroom crime scene and the inmate’s cell once the inmate is located. Three security logs on those areas will not hurt the investigation and may actually be extremely useful. Remember these three areas are out of sight from each other.
While all these tasks are being conducted at the same time, the following tasks should be conducted:
- The suspect is located and secured.
- The suspect’s clothing is removed and placed in a paper evidence bag. Mark the date, time and location of the evidence on the evidence bag. (Do not use plastic evidence bags as they retain damaging moisture.)
- Remove all known witnesses and keep them separate. I always liked for the officer witness to go up to the administration building and relax until I spoke with them. They witness traumatic incidents often and need to get off the compound.
- Medical personal has already been on the scene to deliver necessary life-saving interventions.
- The prison or jail doctor has been called, along with the medical examiner’s office, to pronounce death.
- The crime scene continues to be secured until officers are properly relieved of duty and security logs are ceased only by investigative personnel.
- Crime scene technicians or investigators are taking many photographs of this large crime scene before starting to collect evidence from each area. Along with still photos, a video recording should be taken as well following the blood trail from the dayroom all the way outside the dorm and back to the suspect’s cell.
- Photographs of the suspect’s entire naked body need to be taken, including close-ups of fingers, nails, knuckles and any scratches or wounds on the body
- The inmate needs to be taken to medical for a complete head-to-toe medical examination.
- If your victim is still alive the same thing is done with him or her as far as photographs and medical attention.
- If the victim is deceased, then photographs at the crime scene will be taken and then again at the medical examiners’ office during the autopsy.
- Keep all inmate witnesses from that dorm separate and out of the dorm where the incident took place.
One important requirement to never forget is to keep people out of the crime scene. I like to say, “Do not confuse your rank with my authority.” Of course, if a person of rank approaches you and wants to look at the crime scene it is best not to give them this quote from the military police. Be polite and explain to them you have been given an assignment with extremely strict orders as to who enters the crime scene. If they force their way into the crime scene, log it onto the security log and contact one of the investigators or crime scene technicians immediately. Forcing your way into a crime scene can warrant an investigation and discipline and a trip to the state attorney’s office.
Never remove any items or touch anything within or around the crime scene. I have walked onto a crime scene and have been told, “We only took away the food tray and had the inmate orderly wear protective equipment to clean up the blood with bleach water for everyone’s safety.” If the victim has no stab wounds or other signs of death, we send that food tray for a toxicology report. The inmate may have been poisoned. The blood that was so kindly mopped up needed to be photographed and a sample sent in for DNA testing.
Remember your crime scene is as large as the location where the crime took place. If you have a prison riot and the inmates take over the prison, then the entire prison is your crime scene.
If your agency is not training you in this area, you are not going to be able to control and secure a crime scene.