As authors, using acronyms gives a little realism to your character dialog and shows that you’ve done some basic research into the forensics profession. So I thought I would define a few of the more common acronyms used by CSIs. Don’t be shy about using these in your novel.
- SLR = Single Lens Reflex. The SLR is a type of camera most CSIs use. These cameras have a detachable lens that can be separated from the body. This is different than the small point and shoot cameras popular with most people.
- ABFO = American Board of Forensic Odontology. A very common photographic scale (ruler) is called an ABFO scale. It is “L” shaped with 6″ arms.
- UV = Ultraviolet. Many body fluids like semen, saliva, and urine will fluoresce under UV light and photographed even if they are invisible to the naked eye.
- IR = Infra-red. Infra-red light is used to detect and photograph various forms of secret writing, different inks used on the same document (like a check where someone adds extra zeros to the cash out amount), and even drugs.
- ALS = Alternate Light Source is a device using both ultra-violet and infrared light to discover evidence.
- UAV = Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. UAVs (also called drones) are becoming more popular with law enforcement agencies as a platform for taking aerial photographs and video. Basically they are sophisticated remote controlled aircraft with camera equipment that can be controlled from a ground based pilot.
- ACE-V = Analysis, Comparison, Evaluation, and Verification. This is the methodology used by fingerprint examiners to compare latent crime scene fingerprints to inked fingerprints on an arrest card.
- AFIS = Automated Fingerprint Identification System. This is a ubiquitous term used to describe a variety of computer databases that store and search fingerprint images. Don’t confuse with AFIX Tracker which is a specific brand of AFIS type computer system.
- I-AFIS = Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. This is the national fingerprint database operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that can be accessed by state and local law enforcement agencies.
- CSI = Crime Scene Investigator
- SOCO = Scenes of Crime Officer is the term for a CSI in England
- FMJ = Full metal jacket
- HP = Hollow Point
- DNA = Deoxyribonucleic Acid; our genetic building blocks
- STR = Short Tandem Repeat is a type of modern forensic DNA testing of specific loci on two or more samples.
- RFLP = Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism refers to differences between homologous DNA sequences and is an older testing procedure.
- CODIS = Combined DNA Index System is a computerized database of DNA profiles used in criminal investigations (similar to AFIS).
- BAC = Blood alcohol content.
- LMG = Leucomalachite green is a blood reagent with a strong odor that turns the latent bloodstain a green color. It is not commonly used today.
- LCV = Lueco-crystal Violet is a blood reagent that turns bloodstains a dark blue/purple color.
- GCMS = Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer is a device used to identify chemical compounds in unknown samples like illicit drugs. It is a great instrument to use with mixed samples or for general screening but it will totally consume the sample.
- LCMS = Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry is another method of drug testing that is useful in complex mixtures of samples.
- FTIR = Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy is a devices used to test a liquid, gas, or solid substance to identify it. It is the preferred method if you want to save the sample or if you need to identify an isomer.
- GHB = Gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid is a common date rape drug that is both colorless and odorless. It is commonly slipped into victim’s drinks.
- SEM = Scanning Electron Microscope is a device using electrons rather than light to visualize very small evidence about 250 times greater than the typical light microscope.
Professional Forensic Organizations:
- IAI = International Association for Identification
- AAFS = American Academy of Forensic Sciences
- ACSR = Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction
- IABPA = International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts
- RMABPA = Rocky Mountain Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts
- SWG = Scientific working group (several groups based on field of study like SWGTREAD, SWGSTAIN, SWGGUN, and SWGFAST)
Don’t forget that a lot of agencies have acronyms like the FBI, DEA, BATFE, etc. Also, I have left out a number of acronyms that deal with accreditation and safety as I can’t imagine you wanting to use them in dialog (unless you want your readers to fall asleep in which case let me know!)
This will be the first in a series of posts on how CSIs respond to and investigate crime scenes. I hope that these posts will give you a little insight to the process which may help you in developing scenes and dialog in your novel. I’ll be speaking exclusively about CSIs who are on-call as opposed to those working in shifts. Obviously, if your character works a shift (like graves) they are already in uniform or in their vehicle or office and can respond accordingly. But, what about the CSIs who get called out after hours? This is where it can get a little interesting. During my career I worked banker hours during the day and was on-call at night and on weekends. Depending on the size of the lab you may be on-call as much as every other week or once every six or eight weeks. Usually you’re on call one week at a time. In some labs you may also be on “back up” the week before you go on-call which means you’re the number two person called if something major happens or the primary criminalist is already on a call out.
Most agencies will give you an on-call vehicle and some even supply your phone. You are required to drive this vehicle everywhere you go while on-call, even on personal errands like grocery shopping or going out to eat. Of course, when the call comes you have to finish up what you’re doing and respond to the crime scene. This adds a little inconvenience to your life in that you usually have to driver separately from your family. So if you and your spouse go out for dinner you need to drive separately. Same thing with going to the kids soccer game, Thanksgiving dinner, or anything else you might do. You can’t take your spouse or kids to a crime scene because you don’t know how long you’ll be tied up (days in extreme cases). Obviously, you have to stay somewhat close to home when on call. You can’t go camping for the weekend or do anything that would prevent you from responding in a reasonable amount of time. Most agencies I know of require you to be en route to a scene within thirty minutes of a call and on scene in about an hour.
Different agencies have different policies on who actually can call out a CSI. Most of the time this is restricted to the Sergeant rank or above. Since CSIs are a finite resource agencies don’t want them called out on every little thing so a higher ranked individual will evaluate the request to see if a CSI is really needed. In some agencies only the investigations supervisors can call out the lab and patrol officers must make their request through them. Either way, the CSI usually gets the call from either the ranking officer, detective, or in most cases dispatch. Regardless, when the call comes in you have to take down pertinent information about the crime. Every CSI will have a notebook and their phone on the nightstand or in their vehicle. Here are some of the basic things we might have to note as the call comes in.
- Time and date of the call out
- Who notified you
- The crime scene location (address)
- Initial details about the crime including secondary scenes (this information may be incomplete or incorrect depending on the source)
- Time and place of your departure to the crime scene (this could be your residence, restaurant, or some other location)
- Finally, time of arrival on scene.
Your departures and arrivals are usually done via police radio so there is a record. Every criminalist will be assigned a call sign number. Sometimes this is an arbitrary employee number, vehicle number, or just your name. Here is a hypothetical radio exchange between a CSI and dispatch. When you talk to dispatch you typically only reference yourself; you don’t have to say “dispatch”. There are some websites that actually let you listen in to live police radio traffic in your area so you may want to do a web search for your local police or sheriff followed by “police radio” and see what comes up.
Dispatch: “651 go ahead”
CSI: “Show me en route to 1234 4th street from my residence”
Dispatch: “Copy 2147″ (2147 would be 9:47 pm in military time)
Then when you arrive on scene you might say…
CSI: “651 on scene”
Dispatch: “2231″ (meaning your arrival is acknowledged at 10:31pm)
There is no need to acknowledge what scene you are arriving at because you already made that clear in the initial call. If you needed to talk to an officer or detective while en route you would contact them on the radio using their call sign followed by yours. For example you might say “Charlie 23, 651″. This means “hey guy named Charlie 23 this is me (651) and I want to talk to you.
Fingerprints have played a major role in crime scene investigation for over a century. Fingerprints prove that a certain person touched a certain object and that link may have profound implications for a person’s guilt or innocence. Fingerprints are valuable to investigators because they are unique and can easily be compared by law enforcement or other investigators. These examiners use a variety of powders or chemical reagents to develop fingerprint patterns on items of evidence or at the crime scene. Although fingerprints have become the gold standard of identification it is possible (in theory at least) to falsify this evidence and writers can use forgery or fabrication events to throw a major curve-ball to the storyline.
The terms “forged” and “fabricated” are commonly interchanged but they are not synonymous. Let’s start with the most impractical and difficult of the two; a forgery. A forged fingerprint is created by “planting” the fingerprint of an innocent person at the crime scene or on the evidence in order to implicate them. The easiest way to do this is to leave some moveable object containing the person’s fingerprints at the crime scene. This could include anything from a beer bottle or receipt to a weapon. It sounds simple but it is anything but. First, a criminal has no way of knowing whether the item in question actually contains an identifiable print. Second, CSIs are used to finding prints from multiple person’s at crime scenes, especially public access scenes. Unless the fingerprint is in the victim’s blood it’s value may be somewhere between insignificant to proof of contact. For example, just because we find a fingerprint on a gun doesn’t necessarily mean that person fired the gun and likely won’t prove they fired a particular cartridge at a particular time (homicide). Simply put, a good CSI doesn’t jump to conclusions. I have heard concerns about another type of forgery but I have never seen it happen and don’t know anyone else who has either. It involves making a “cast” of the innocent person’s finger and then using that prop to plant prints. This idea is filled with challenges not the least of which is making a cast of a person’s finger without their knowledge or consent. Another major challenge is that a cast won’t react to a surface in the dame way that pliable skin does and those differences can be detected when looking at a print under magnification. It sounds neat for a novel though.
“Fabrication” unfortunately have occurred in criminal investigations. Usually this is done by one of the investigators (patrol, CSI, or detective). A “fabrication” occurs when the suspect’s fingerprint is falsely associated with a crime scene or item of evidence. For example, a crooked detective might give a suspect a soda during an interview and then lift his prints from that can. They could then put that tape lift on a card and say they lifted it from the crime scene or some other item it didn’t come from. Another method used has been to lift an inked print from a suspect fingerprint arrest card. This too is very rare but it has happened so CSIs look for a number of things to detect such fabrications.
We look at things like surface texture, quality of print, how the tape lifted from the object in question and a number of other things I won’t reveal. Simply put, if you lifted a print from a flat hard surface but claimed it came from an uneven surface on a gun we could see that. We also may look at the actual item. For example, if you said the print was from a gun and we pull the gun out of evidence we should not only see that the gun was treated with some kind of powder but there should be an obvious spot where the lift tape removed the powder. Everything should match up in the background including the width of the tape.
CSIs also tend to mark evidence with their initials and latent lift number. For example, I may write “L2 TA” on my second latent lift on a particular item. You could then tell exactly where I lifted a particular print from on a given item of evidence. We also sometimes photograph the latents in place before we make any attempt to lift or cast them. All of these steps help to ensure that the integrity of the fingerprint evidence is solid.
Like I said, these events are extremely rare in forensics. We take a lot of steps to ensure we have good people doing good work but it isn’t fool proof. I’m sure there are a variety of reasons why someone may choose to commit this type of crime and there may be other evidence of dishonesty in their case work. As you are writing scenes you might consider using forged or fabricated evidence to implicate certain characters. Even the suspicion of fabrication can add some tension until it is resolved. Criminals are probably the most common perpetrators of these acts as they try to frame others for their crimes. Ask yourself, what other characters might have a motive, means, or opportunity for the crime and how your criminal might exploit that.
Although I am no longer in law enforcement and I don’t work on cases I still conduct research in the forensic sciences. I thought some of you might find this latest article interesting. Criminals may employ a variety of tactics to conceal forensic evidence from CSIs. Some of these efforts can be very effective while others are not. As CSIs we continually push ourselves to discover new techniques to thwart criminal efforts to conceal evidence. As authors, it pays to keep abreast of some of these techniques in your writing. In the article linked above one of the major discoveries was the false-positive reaction with one type of wall paper. This finding supports the idea that wallpapers should be removed to test for neat or latent blood staining underneath. Enjoy.
Anyone who knows me knows that I never pass up an opportunity to make fun of the FBI. Those same folks also know that I have a tremendous amount of respect for the agency. One of my best friends is a Special Agent and despite the fact that he is a genius, I relentlessly poke fun at him anyway. The FBI is prominently featured in many novels, movies, and television news segments. That’s not too surprising given the agency has a well known reputation and it’s hard to miss them on the evening news (thanks to their snazzy windbreakers emblazoned with their initials). But I have encountered a number of authors who don’t fully understand the role of the FBI in criminal investigations. Recently, an author friend had me read a scene they were working on in which the FBI was investigating an officer involved shooting. They were under the impression that the FBI investigated all officer involved shootings. So I thought it might be helpful to discuss when the FBI is actually involved in a case. Keep in mind that just because the FBI has jurisdiction in a crime doesn’t necessarily mean they will work the investigation. More on that in a bit.
To understand when the FBI is called in you need to understand a little about jurisdiction. Keep in mind that this issue can get very complicated so I’ll try to keep this as simple as possible. The FBI is a Federal agency within the United States of America. I find it easiest to think of jurisdiction in two broad categories; property (location) and statutes (laws). The FBI has jurisdiction on federal properties like buildings, federal public lands (BLM, forrest, National Parks), and Indian Reservations (more on Indian Reservations in a later post). Also included are “special” jurisdictions that don’t fit into a “normal” definition. These include places like airplanes crossing over various states (you don’t have to prove which state airspace the crime occurred in), cruise ships, and potentially even the Space Shuttle (before the program was eliminated that is). In theory, any felony and many misdemeanors on these properties could (would) be investigated by the FBI. There are two big exceptions however. If another Federal law enforcement agency has primary jurisdiction or mission mandates over the crime. For example, the post office has its own branch that investigates mail fraud. Customs investigates smuggling and the Secret Service investigates counterfeiting and major fraud. Then there are certain crimes that may involve multiple agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Other federal reservations that are unique are military bases. See my interviews with an ARMY CID agent or NCIS Agent to get a better idea of those jurisdictions.
The second category to consider is the statute. The United States is a Federalist system comprised of Federal, state, and local laws. The FBI is a federal agency and primarily concerns itself with crimes defined under federal statutes. They won’t be responding to the average stolen vehicle. So some of the more common crimes you may be familiar with are bank robbery (FDIC insured banks), kidnapping, public corruption, racketeering and organized crime, etc. Additionally, the FBI also deals with acts of terrorism, counter-terrorism, and a few other things I won’t mention.These activities have risen dramatically since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York City. As more and more agents are preoccupied with those important tasks, local agencies are picking up the slack by handling a larger portion of things like bank robberies and kidnappings (these crimes are also against state and local law).
As if that wasn’t complicated enough the FBI can be called for assistance on any major crime. Usually these are mass murders or serial murders that may or may not cross state boundaries. It is important to recognize however that the FBI must be invited into the case by the local agency unless there is a clear violation of federal law (such as an act of terrorism). The FBI can’t just storm onto any old homicide and take over just because they want to. More importantly, the FBI doesn’t have a dispatch center like you might find in a police department. 911 calls don’t go to the FBI switchboard and FBI agents aren’t driving around “on patrol” waiting for a radio call. Every agent I know is backlogged with major cases and doesn’t have time to investigate local crimes even if they wanted to (and they don’t). Besides, that’s what the local police are for.
So if you plan to have the FBI investigating crimes in your novel you need to make sure that one of the following occurs. They are invited in on something major, the crime is covered under federal statutes, and that it occurs on some kind of federal property. Now, the FBI does provide a tremendous amount of mutual aid to state and local authorities via units like their crime lab, Behavioral Analysis, and Hostage Rescue to name a few but, they don’t “take over” the investigation in the process. If you are writing a typical crime novel then the FBI characters will probably be acting in these capacities (like profiling a serial killer) and not as the lead agency. Don’t be afraid to insert FBI characters, just know it may be a supporting role. Keep in mind that this is a very basic explanation of when the FBI may respond to investigations. In reality, circumstances may dictate exceptions to the rule. If you are working on a specific scene post a question and I’ll try to clarify based on your specifics.
MM: I worked a cold case that involved a sexual murder. The body was tied in an unusual manner. The knots demonstrated sophistication but were quite honestly out of my realm of experience. Our suspect was an enlisted sailor. We found an expert within the Navy on nautical knots and lashings. He was able to examine the bindings and his conclusions were very helpful. He was able to demonstrate that the knot binding her wrists could be tied one handed by someone familiar and skilled with it. Our original assumption from its complexity was that she was either unconscious by this point (though that did not fit the MO) or that he would have had difficulty controlling her with both hands busy on the knot. This working theory of ours was quickly changed. Of further interest was his identification of which rating (military specialty) the sailor that tied these knots would have had as well as his experience level. He noted subtle irregularities (a right over left, instead of left over right) that allowed him to offer the opinion that the sailor was likely near the end of his first enlistment but not established in his second 4 years at the time this was tied. This matched our suspect to a “T”.
F4F: How large is the NCIS? Are there a lot of offices and laboratories or is it pretty centralized?
MM: NCIS has about 1400 Special Agents, about 70 are Marine Special Agents, additionally there are intelligence analysts and support staff. The NCIS is broken down into field offices with a headquarters in the Washington DC area. They recently moved from the Navy Yard (of the TV show fame) to Quantico Virginia where they are co-located with the other military investigative organizations. NCIS uses the US Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory at Fort Gillam in Atlanta. During time of specialized forward deployment special labs have been set up such as in Iraq to expedite forensic processing in the region. There are fewer than 20 field offices. A field office typically covers a large geographic region such as the southeastern US or Northwest US. They may also cover Europe, Japan, and other foreign regions such as the Middle East. Field offices are led by a Special Agent in Charge (SAC). Each Field office has NISRA’s assigned under it. These are Resident Agencies that are led by a Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) and serve a particular military base or command. The strength at each NCISRA is dependent on their mission and coverage.
F4F: Can NCIS agents arrest any military officer, even a high ranking officer (such as an Admiral) or do they have to go through a special process?
MM: Generally the jurisdiction lies initially with the location of the crime. When a suspect is identified it shifts to the suspects military commanding officer and the Military Investigative Office (MIO) that would serve them. For instance, a Soldier that kills a sailor on a Marine Base certainly poses some issues. Ultimately the soldier would be formally charged and tried through his/her chain of command so the Army CID would have the investigation at that point. Initially The NCIS would work this as the crime occurred on their base and a suspect is normally not instantly identified. In short, all of the MIO’s have a great working relationship as we so often overlap. It is also important to have these with the local and state police as often the crime is in their jurisdiction and we assist.
F4F: Tell us a little about your new text book Death Scene Investigation
MM: The foundation for Death Scene Investigation actually came about when I helped author a crime scene field guide for NCIS. Don Housman and I worked on that original project along with input from quite a few Special Agents. That guide was so helpful to me that I hoped to put out a civilian version. By some twist the Death Scene Investigation Procedural Guide actually was finished before the civilian Crime Scene Investigation Guide (which I am co-authoring with Don Housman). The Death Scene Investigation Procedural Guide is a spiral bound, 260 page guide book meant to be carried in your cargo pocket to the scene. It suggests step by step procedures for almost any death scene you might encounter (if you think of one I missed, let me know, I’ll get it in the next edition). The guide starts with a simple decision matrix that allows you to evaluate the evidence in context and determine an investigative direction. It emphasizes “red flags” for when an accident isn’t an accident etc… From recovering bodies from shallow graves, fields or water to determining approximate time since death, collecting evidence, processing fingerprints from the body (the bad guys) to collecting maggots and footwear impressions. An easy to follow procedure is laid out.
One of the most eye-opening things I came to realize during criminal investigations is that family members can make lousy “witnesses”. Whenever someone is murdered the police will interview family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers in an effort to better understand the victim’s habits and character. The more we know about the victim the better able we are to understand the conditions of the crime scene. What is normal, what looks out of place? How would they react to a stranger? Do they have any “blind spots”? A blind spot is a weakness or condition in which they would let their guard down. For example, if they are an animal lover they might be more willing to open the door to a stranger seeking help in finding their lost dog?
Over the years I have found that almost all family and friends believe they know the victim quite well but few actually do. The fact of the matter is that everyone has secrets. Some are old and some are new but they are there. When I wrote The Scent of Fear some of my family members were shocked to learn that the story was inspired by real cases in my career. Some had no idea I’d been involved in such cases and most will never know the full extent of my involvement and case work. It’s just not something I talk about.
In some ways, perception of a victim is like an eyewitness account. There are parts that may be true and other parts that aren’t. Some family members project experiences from years past and presume that the same conditions are true today. For example, the victim may have loved cats when she was 13 but now can’t stand them. But the parent or sibling only remembers the victim loving cats. It’s normal for friends and family to grieve a death. At times they feel remorse or guilt for not being closer and then they feel a responsibility to help “solve” the mystery for the police. This can be beneficial but more often than not it introduces a lot of misinformation that we have to deal with.
Because this misinformation affects real police investigations I thought it would be insightful to conduct your own experiment as an author. It can be kind of fun too. So here is what you do. Make a list of ten or twelve general questions about yourself. I will make a general list below that you can use to get the ball rolling. Once you have completed it send the questionnaire to at least a dozen family, friends, even neighbors or co-workers if you can. Ask them to take it seriously as if they were talking to the police. Then take a look at the answers and see what, if any, differences you might find.
This is basically the same thing the police will do (in person). We will interview all these people and sometimes we get answers back that are completely contradictory. It can be a real challenge to try and figure out which “witness” should be trusted more. Anyway, try it out and have a little fun with it. If you want, please comment once you get things back and tell us how they all did. If you have the time try answering the same questions about your family members and then see how many questions you get right.
- Do I normally lock my windows at night?
- Do I own a gun or know how to shoot one?
- What kind of beer/wine do I normally drink?
- Describe my daily routine. Do I have a predictable schedule?
- If unmarried, am I dating anyone serious right now?
- Do I have any phobias?
- What are my favorite hobbies?
- Wold I open the door to a strange woman?
- What did I do last weekend?
- Have I ever had any major surgery?
- Have I ever been arrested?
- What time do I typically go to bed? Get up?
Hi everyone! Today I’m over at the Crime Fiction Collective discussing some of the major challenges facing cold case investigators. I have worked my fair share of cold cases over the years and they can really suck! We can throw all the latest forensic technologies at them but, if the foundation isn’t there it’s like nailing an egg to a tree. Delving into a forty year old case file really opens your eyes to the challenges that can hamper an investigation. I’ll bet there are challenges you never considered as an author. If you’re writing about a cold case investigation you should check this out to see what your characters might be facing. See you there!