How to Enter a Crime Scene

By Dean H. Garrison, Jr.

This editorial originally appeared in “The Scene”, the newsletter of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction.

The yellow tape is up. There are cops everywhere, and maybe even some emergency vehicles. Your Lieutenant or Sergeant or Captain called you on the phone. If they were excited and out-of-breath on the phone, you just know they’re new at this. Somebody’s dead–Oh, my God!–and how soon can you get there? It’s an ungodly hour, of course, and you’re half asleep. Or else it’s early, and all your plans for the rest of the day are shot. And, speaking of shot, there’s a dead guy on the floor somewhere, and he’s shot or stabbed or hit with a lamp or a bottle or a pipe, and he or she is dead or dying or enroute to the emergency room or Dead Right There on the lawn or sprawled out on the bed, or he’s the newest face on the barroom floor. In any case, there’s no need to get overly excited and start flying off in all directions. It’s a homicide, for goodness sake! It’s already too late for somebody.

Fools Rush In

You’re no fool, of course, so you have driven up and parked carefully, avoiding double-parking the ambulance and/or fire trucks and/or medical examiner’s sport utility vehicle. You don’t park in front of one of the neighbor’s driveways, because you know they will suddenly have to go to work or run an errand, and they’ll honk their horns, and you’ll just have to come back out and move your car then. So you’re parked there with your dome light on, and you look busy and official, carefully making notes on your yellow pad about the time and the date and the address and the weather conditions and the lighting and so on. What you’re really doing is finishing that mug of coffee that you stopped to make before you even left to come here. Or you swung by a 7-11 store on the way and grabbed a pair of Dr. Peppers or Diet Cokes. You’ve got your flashlight; you may even have two of them. And batteries for the flashlight. And an extra pen. And back-ups and contingency plans. It’s like the rookie cop’s paranoid thinking: What if my second back-up gun jams? But in crime scene work, you wonder when you last checked for that spare flashlight bulb or those electronic flash cells. This is, after all, the Big Time. This is serious business: The Murder Game.

Getting Out of the Car

It helps if you’re somewhat arthritic when you get out of the car or truck or van at a crime scene. You almost need to struggle free of the vehicle, looking old and geezerly and experienced and world-weary way beyond your years. Try to look like an old country doctor, arriving at his five-thousandth baby delivery. (Even if it’s only your third homicide scene, you should try to look this way.) It projects to those by-standing citizens and anxious patrol officers a Been-Here-Done-This attitude that let’s them know you’re there, and there’s nothing to worry about now. It’s D-Day, and the Pros from Dover have arrived. Now that you’re here, everything will go smoothly. Sometimes it even helps to stretch a little.

One Speed: S-L-O-W

Once you have painfully extracted yourself from your vehicle, you need to take in the scene exterior. You breathe in the scene environment, looking this way and that in your non-hurried, methodical way, keeping an eye out for additional corpses on the front lawn that someone may have missed or that mental suspect on the corner who is shouting his confession. A really godlike move is to spot a cartridge casing in the street or a shotgun wad on the curb out front that nobody has found yet, and say to the nearest police officer, “Son, you’ll want to keep on eye on that.” That slays them. You’re on top of your game, after all. You eat lawyers for breakfast. The cops know it. Now the crowd knows it.

Some officers approach you and start in with the story of the murder. The street Sergeant, if he’s new, is babbling names and details and times and suspects’ nicknames, or, if she’s a more experienced Sergeant, she may be enjoying a beverage or a smoke or both. One rule to know, whether it’s crime scene work or police work or bartending, is that Whoever Is The Calmest Is In Charge. Frantic people–be they frantic cops or frantic citizens–look around for help and answers, and they will always find the calmest person and know that he’s in charge. And, of course, that’s you. Your unruffled demeanor lets them all know that you know what you’re doing and you do it well. And that they shouldn’t look worried because you don’t look worried.

You haven’t even crossed the “Crime Scene” barrier tape yet, and the bystanders already know that, if this crime can be solved, you will be the one to work it all out. They just know it. You have arrived…you with your coffee and your arthritis and your socks that don’t match.

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