Field visit encounters: Finding a body
6 steps for field probation officers to take to preserve the scene and support law enforcement
In the field of community corrections, not many probation officers will stumble upon a dead body, during field/home visits, but the possibility does exist. Many people die each year due to unintentional injuries. Others may be victims of crimes or die from natural causes. Therefore, walking up to a home and finding a dead body is possible.
Because this possibility is present in our line of work, certain key steps should be followed in an effort to avoid liability as well as ensure that the deceased is properly taken care of.
What you should know about finding a body
If you discover a body during a home visit, there is a big possibility that you just walked into a crime scene. To a law enforcement agency, any crime scene with a dead body needs to be investigated with utmost importance. Because of the nature of the crime, the answer to "What happened?" can only be determined after a careful examination of the crime scene, and the proper documentation of all of the witness statements. You are now part of the crime scene. Here is what you should know.
1. Put your safety first
It can be shocking to find or stumble upon a dead body, depending on the circumstances. You may experience a range of emotions. You may find yourself in a state of shock – that’s OK. After you compose yourself, you need to make sure that you are safe and that there is nothing in the area that could cause you harm. Your personal safety should always be your top priority. Whatever caused the deceased's death may also pose a danger to you.
Remember to stay calm. Check your surroundings and look for fallen objects, such as live wires or dangerous chemicals. Once you know you are in a safe area, you can proceed with what needs to be done.
2. Call 911
Call 911 immediately after you have ensured your safety. Typically, the 911 dispatcher who answers your call will tell you what to do and will determine if there are any actions you need to take before law enforcement arrives.
Once law enforcement arrives on the scene, you will need to give them a statement of the events leading up to the discovery of the body.
3. Protect the scene
The criminal investigator assigned to the case will gather the pieces of evidence. These bits and pieces may be in the form of trace evidence found at the scene, and statements taken from direct eyewitness accounts. This is why your next few steps are critical.
Do your best to avoid touching anything when you come across a dead body. Bodies can begin decomposing very quickly. Do not touch the skin or body fluid, as the body may contain potential bloodborne pathogens that can infect you. If you have personal protective equipment, such as gloves, put them on as soon as possible.
If you notice a weapon or believe a crime was committed, it is particularly important that you leave everything as is and do not move or reposition the body. Criminal investigators need as much evidence as possible in these situations to formulate a conclusion about the situation.
Law enforcement professionals take note of even the tiniest details, such as the lights being turned on or off. From an investigative standpoint, the first officer who arrives at a crime scene is instructed to make visual examinations and not alter the scene. This is how critical evidence is preserved. It is up to you to help preserve the crime scene.
4. Preserve evidence
Anything and everything should be considered evidence. Whether this evidence is physical or testimonial, it must be preserved, noted and brought to the attention of law enforcement investigators. Any item can constitute physical evidence; therefore, it is important that nothing be touched or moved at the scene before the arrival of the investigators. One of the key things you must always remember is: Once an item of evidence has been moved or altered, it is impossible to restore it to its original position or condition. So whatever you do, do not move anything.
5. Provide a statement
The statements from people at the scene will also be collected; this is key evidence for the investigation. All of the statements collected at the scene are spontaneous statements that may have key information missing. It is very important that your statement be on point.
You may inadvertently become a suspect in the investigation. Do not panic, this is protocol in any possible homicide investigation. As you wait for law enforcement to arrive at the scene, begin to document the following information for your statement.
- Take pictures with your department-issued cellphone. If your department does not provide you with one, understand that if you use your personal cellphone to take pictures, your phone can be collected as evidence. In Texas, a law enforcement agency can use the Michael Morton Act to collect your personal cell phone as evidence.
- Take notes. In the future, you can refer to your notes should the investigator contact you later for additional questions. All of the notes in your notepad will be collected as evidence. It is important to refrain from tearing out pages. If the notepad has 50 pages, leave them all in there. The last thing you want to be questioned on is where are the missing pages. As a general rule of thumb, start using a new notepad and save the notepad with your notes for the day they are requested from the law enforcement agency.
- Client information. If the dead body is your client, it is important to advise the law enforcement agency who the person is.
- Why are you there? Make sure to indicate the purpose of your field/home visit. In addition, provide law enforcement with copies of the judgment should the investigator request it.
- What did you see? Advise the investigators of what you found at the scene and what you noticed at the scene.
- Provide a timeline. The time you arrived at the location as well as the time you left your last location needs to be provided to the law enforcement agency. All stops along the route that were taken, such as restroom breaks or additional stops need to be provided as well. This will help collaborate your story as far as what time you arrived at the scene.
- Retrace your steps. Advise the investigators of everything you might have touched and everywhere you might have stepped as you walked into the crime scene. Make sure to advise them of the time and location that you placed your gloves on, and what you might have touched while wearing the gloves.
6. Seek counseling
Finding a dead body can be life changing but not in a good way. If you cannot turn to friends and family for support, it is a good idea to reach out to a professional. Remember that many of the emotions that come with locating a dead body can be difficult to overcome. Reaching out to a professional will help you deal with the situation.
Remember, we are each other's greatest teachers.
Authors’ note: I would like to thank my Executive Director, Faustino "Tino" Lopez, for allowing me the opportunity to submit this article for publication. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Leo Perez, Hidalgo County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, 3100 S. Bus Hwy 281, Edinburg, Texas 78539; email@example.com.
Read more: Have a plan: 7 ways to stay safe off-duty