Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Politically Correct Policing by Tom Adair

LUCY BURDETTE: Today we are fortunate to have Tom Adair, a retired, internationally recognized, forensic scientist/CSI in Colorado, visiting our blog. He has a new blog on forensics for writers and some very interesting pet peeves and opinions on getting things right--and wrong! Welcome Tom!


TOM ADAIR: As a forensic scientist you have to confront a lot of unpleasant and nasty things; not the least of which is politics. Political influence can take many forms from benign (yet annoying) new uniform policies to outright interference with a criminal investigation. It varies from agency to agency too, popping its head up like a traveling circus in town to get their freak on. I like to think I'm a pretty simple, straight forward guy. Being a CSI is tough enough so when confronted with goofy obstacles I tend to react negatively. Such is the case with political correctness.
As authors you can use these kinds of issues to inject a little tension with or between characters. They can also help you shape your characters values and add some fun dialog. Here are a few brief examples.

"We treat all deaths as Homicides"

This is a quaint little mantra that sounds like you're really serious about solving a case right? It's commonly offered up at press conferences by high ranking law enforcement officers trying to assure the public they are taking the case seriously. The problem I have always had with the phrase is that it implies a bias. When I would write a preliminary report (prior to autopsy findings, toxicology, etc.) I would always list the classification as simply a death investigation. That's it. As a scientist I'm supposed to remain neutral and go where the evidence leads me. But if I begin with the assumption the death is a homicide (presumably until evidence proves otherwise) then I may be setting myself up to miss red flags suggesting suicide or staging.

The Bunny Suit

These are the full body Tyvek suits that are really common in Europe and during high profile cases with a lot of media attention. They're uncomfortable and they tear pretty easily and I've generally only worn them to protect myself from some hazard at the crime scene. But a lot of agencies require their CSIs to wear these suits on homicide scenes to "prevent" contamination. The funny thing is that you'll almost never see anyone wearing these suits at burglary scenes, recovered stolen vehicles, or other "low profile" crimes. Additionally, the first responders won't wear these suits upon first discovering the scene. So one would expect to find a bunch of contamination present at these other scenes right (after all, they didn't protect the scene in these funny looking suits)? The fact of the matter is you don't because normal evidence handling procedures prevent contamination but they just don't look as good on the live broadcast of the evening news.

A Person of Interest

This is a favorite of mine. Admittedly, a pretty minor thing but just annoying as hell. Again, this is a classic statement offered up by high ranking officials at press conferences. Just once I'd love to hear a reporter ask the official to define and differentiate a "person of interest" with a "suspect". I'd buy a tub of popcorn for that show. Obviously if you're interested in a person relative to a crime you suspect they may have had something to do with it don't you? Are they really worried that they'll offend the wife-beating dirt bag husband by suggesting he might have had something to do with the disappearance of his wife?

Unfortunately there are too many other examples to mention here. Needless to say, you can use some of these types of issues to spice up some scenes and create explosive dialog between characters (usually those issuing the orders and those following them). Imagine how morale can plummet if the lead detective is reprimanded for calling the parents suspects in the death of their sweet newborn baby. What kind of message will that send to the other characters and how aggressively will they pursue new leads? Play around with some issues and see if they work for you. You may be surprised how well these scene mirror real life events.

LUCY: See I've already learned things--like "the person of interest" phrase which is unfortunately riddled all through my new book! But it's not too late for you Reds--Tom will stop in over the day to answer your questions...

29 comments:

Rosemary Harris said...

Wow...great blog! Now I have to go back and read everything you've ever written. Who can resist a post that's titled Holy Jumping Maggots!?
Speaking of toxicology reports..I have a character that appears to be a suicide (drug overdose) but is actually a murder victim. Any tips or suggestions on how to keep it real? Thanks.

H. L. Banks said...

Enjoyed your post - you have a real flair with words - thinking of taking the writing plunge someday? I've added your blog to my favs - awesome for a writer to be able to have online access to someone in your field. Thanks.

Hallie Ephron said...

Hey, Tom - I will definitely be a regular looking at your blog. Love your no-nonsense approach.

It cracks me up on those crime shows when they tweeze a hair off the carpet. EVIDENCE! In my house, they'd be awash in "evidence."

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, yes, welcome, welcome--and very timely! (Since it;'s all about MY book.. :-) )

I'm in the --gee, it's not really that easy to kill someone phase. If I clonked someone with a frying pan (just say)--what would I have to do to kill them?

And--so interesting about first responders. What's going through the mind of the first cop on the scene, evidence-protection-wise? The first detective?

Thank you thank you!

Tammy said...

Fabulous blog. Thanks, Tom and Reds!

forensics4fiction said...

Here's me being PI Hank. It is easy to kill someone but much more difficult to get away with it. As a new author it's interesting to me that I have found another profession in which discussions of murder methods are so readily accepted. It's like a whole new group of folks I can be myself with.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yup. Pretty interesting dinner conversation!

forensics4fiction said...

Sorry Hank, you had other questions too. What's going through the mind of first responders? A whole mix of things! Evidence handling is usually way down on the list. First and foremost is officer safety, rendering aid, looking for badguys, looking for other dangers, herding paramedics, dogs, dealing with witnesses (sometimes hysterical). Not funny, truly hysterical. Okay, sometimes funny too. By the time detectives show up usually the scene is under control and the mindset has changed from triage to investigation. The "pace" slows and people settle into their investigative roles. Officers go about securing the scene and setting up the yellow tape you're all familiar with. That's when everything goes well :).

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, such a perfect answer! Thank you!

Would a detective wear gloves? How would he (mine's a man) open a door? Go up a flight of stairs?

Lucy Burdette said...

See Hank, doesn't Tom give you an amazing window into the minds of the investigators? Things we just wouldn't know to think of!

Thanks again for your insights Tom!

Now could you please read my current manuscript and fix everything up? (just kidding, only dreaming...)

forensics4fiction said...

Detectives should wear gloves but it doesn't always happen. They do get embarassed when their name pops up in a fingerprint report though! Generally, investigators (CSIs too)try to avoid walking where the suspect walked or touching what the suspect touched (in the way they touched it). I have an article on F4F that addresses this in more detail. Look for it here. http://forensics4fiction.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/how-criminalists-touch-evidence/

So when walking up a staircase they might hug the edge or at least check to see if there are any visible footwear impressions to avoid or process.

Deb said...

What a great post, Tom! And your blog is going on my list, too. I've always thought it was probably much easier to kill people than it looks in TV shows and movies, where people bounce off buildings and cars and get shot, but get up and walk away...

Loved the bit about the bunny suits. I always hate making my characters put them on--unless they're worried about getting blood on their clothes. But I hadn't thought about the political correctness of it!

Jan Brogan said...

Hi Tom,
I love the bunny suit - and will definitely check out your blog!

I've had homicide cops tell me they are never neutral and are often looking for a reason NOT to consider a death a murder because they're backlog is so overwhelming. Did you ever run up against that, and did it effect you?

forensics4fiction said...

You bring up an excellent point Hallie! It's a question we have to address all the time. What constitutes "evidence" I need to do an article on what I call the garbage collector mentality. Some believe that CSIs should collect everything on scene regardless if it has any significance to the crime. I prefer to let criminalists use their brains to select evidence based on it's probative value. Your home probably isn't that dirty Hallie! I'm not a neat freak but there is something about spending all night in a rat-infested residence dodging dog feces and cockroaches that persuades you to push the dustbuster around when you get home!

forensics4fiction said...

Hi Jan, that's pretty fuc*ed up. I've never met a homicide detective looking for a reason not to discover a homicide. A homicide means that there is a badguy out there preying on more victims and that realization usually pisses us off. I suppose if someone thought that way they are probably burned out and should look for another assignment. Regardless, the decision is usually not theirs to make alone. The medical examiner or Coroner will make the final call. Having said all that, I would prefer that a death be natural or suicide because there is a finality to my role and I can move on to the next case that is waiting in line. Backlogs can be a serioous problem for agencies and sometimes there is no easy way to reduce them. Backlogs suck but it would be much worse to let a criminal get away with a crime.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Perfect, perfect, exactly what I was thinking about...and a lot more. Heading for all your articles and blogs! Thank you!

forensics4fiction said...

Another thing on the bunny suits since so many of you are commenting on them. I'm a pretty big guy (6'2 220) and Murphy hates me. It was not uncommon for me to assist another agency on a case and arrive to find that the only size they had on hand was a Medium! Nothing more humiliating that wearing those suits than wearing them as "floods". Then you get to be on the nightly news typifying the lab geek everyone thinks you are!

Lisa Alber said...

Hey, this is great! I'm also bookmarking your blog. I do have a question...If a victim dies at the scene while the detective is right there, looking him in the eye--does that change how the detective and then the criminalist proceed with evidence gathering, etcetera? I'm wondering what it would mean to the detective--my detective is going to be haunted by this death...

Silver James said...

Hi, Tom, and welcome. Like everyone else, I've bookmarked your site, more to catch up on the current science since I retired from forensics several years ago. Like Hallie, I laugh at the CSI-based dramas. Ooh! Chemical results in an hour! DNA? We got that. Here's the report. What? You think we need light to search a crime scene? Don't flip that light switch! We can see in the dark with the aid of our little mini-LED lights.

Thanks for your insight!

forensics4fiction said...

Thanks for the question Lisa. I'm assuming you mean the victim commits suicide in front of the detective? In any event, I doubt that the detective would be allowed to work on the case unless it is a really small agency (with only one detective). Most agencies would simply assign another to work the scene even if your character was the "lead" detective. You don't want to make someone work a scene that just witnessed that, even if they want to. I've known several officers who have witnessed suicides and it's always troubling.

forensics4fiction said...

Hi Silver, what agency were you with if you don't mind me asking?

forensics4fiction said...

Hey Lisa, I should clarify a bit for you. Even when we investigate a scene where the victim was witnessed to have taken their own life it doesn't really change our evidence gathering procedures. We may not be looking for red flags as we might in an unattended death but the processes remain the same. For one thing it's part of being comprehensive. Secondly, even if the case is a suicide there is the potential for a civil suit or even the potential for criminal charges related to the death (if there is certain evidence uncovered down the road to meet the statutory requirement) so we have to process the scene just like any other.

Lisa Alber said...

Thanks! I guess I should have clarified. Not a suicide. The victim was mortally injured, and left for dead, found, cops called, ambulance on its way...This gets me thinking: would a detective be on the scene? or just the first responders?

In this case, would the detective still be allowed to investigate?

Silver James said...

I was a forensic photographer and technical services officer with the local airport FD and then went to the dark side and worked as a crime analyst and technical investigator with the Midwest City, OK PD, a suburb of Oklahoma City. Now I write, which some say is a crime in and of itself. *looks shifty-eyed*

forensics4fiction said...

Hey Lisa, Detectives can be first on scene but only if they happen to be in the area and are closer than other officers. It happens, but not often. As far as whether they would/could work the scene it would depend on a bit more details. From what you've said it appears your detective wasn't present when the fatal injury was imparted but was there for the dying part. If so then I could see them working the case, assuming the crime (homicide) would normally be investigated by this detective. Some detectives don't work homicides and are assigned to other squads like property crimes.

Lisa Alber said...

Great, this is what I wanted to know. He's homicide, so this would be his case anyhow. Now just gotta think about the first-responder aspect. Thanks so much!

I love this stuff!

Coach Outlet Online said...

Coach Outlet Online is a good store!

Louis Vuitton Outlet said...

This is a very good article

Louis Vuitton said...

This is a very good article