CSI: Crime Scene Investigation shows have enjoyed a steady increase in popularity over the years. However, the growing following of the dramatic portrayal of crime scene investigation techniques, evidence collection and processing, often affect a jury panel’s decision. The concern among criminal justice professionals led to a term called the “CSI effect,” a preconceived notion about the technology and evidence handling on the television shows do not actually exist.
The CSI series portrays evidence with a magical quality and once the evidence is collected and processed it almost always convicts the alleged criminal. Behind the scenes Fayetteville Police’s Forensic Supervisor Grant Graham and his team debunk those myths and share a little about the technical level of knowledge required in their jobs.
Fayetteville’s Crime Scene Investigation team consists of 11 CSI investigators, some of whom are road technicians responding to crimes around the clock, seven days a week using science and technology…not arresting and interrogating suspects as some tend to think.
Meet Trudy Wood, one of two Latent Fingerprint Examiners that make up the CSI team. The spritely female officer’s eyes gleamed as she explained the ins and outs of her job. Growing up, she knew that she wanted to do something in the realm of police work, long before the idea of CSI became popular.
Wood demonstrated the tedious part of her daily duties, but with different cases each day, she feels passionate about her profession and thrives at performing the skilled technical level work involved in latent fingerprint examination for criminal identification and evidence classification. “We look at around 500 latent fingerprints a month,” shared Wood. “15 years of blood, sweat and tears and I still love the job.”
Working alongside Wood is the force’s other technician, Deana Smith. They showed the process of analyzing latent fingerprints using specialized technology and scientific equipment, but ultimately the human eye to carefully scour the computer monitor for each crest and swirl as they compare and contrast the blown up fingerprint image, labeled only by number in the database to confirm a match. Theexaminers often have to interface with other organizations and agencies to request the fingerprints if they come up with a match. As the prints are processed, the examiners often end up testifying in court to educate the jury on the findings of their fingerprint work. Both ladies chuckled as they shared stories of how they frequently battle the “CSI effect.” Sometimes, local residents attempt to ‘help’ them on the scene by telling them how to do their jobs, based on what they’ve seen on TV or movies.
Fingerprints are used to help solve crimes. The forensic team responds to robberies, suicides and homicide cases where they have to dust and lift fingerprints from a scene. So, what can we as the public do to help the fingerprint technicians in their jobs? “It’s as simple as locking your car doors and front door on your house,” said Wood. “When there is not a sign of forced entry, it’s harder to process the car or front door.” Processing a vehicle for fingerprints varies from case to case, Wood said it often depends on the crime, sometimes it’s 20 minutes, other times it’s a few hours – because it includes the entire contents inside like chip bags, soda cans and everything that has a surface.
The key to the scene is getting those fingerprints, the ultimate goal is to narrow it down, identify the suspect and get an arrest.” The idea that a case can be processed and results come within the hour is certainly a myth. Between toxicology reports, forensic tests and autopsy reports, sometimes a case can take weeks for it to all come together. One factor that impedes the progress for fingerprint technicians is the weather, especially if the fingerprints were made on a surface area outside.
Specialized jobs on the team besides Latent Fingerprint Examiners include a Forensic Video Specialist and Forensic photographers. The Forensic Supervisor Grant Graham has been a part of the Fayetteville community for over a year and a half now. With many accolades in his line of work, he was heavily recruited from Mississippi and has had a lifelong career in the field.
The investigative work runs in Graham’s blood, as his father was a Special Investigator for the U.S. Army. He still recalls the moment he got hooked on the idea of forensic science after reading a book his father had given him. Retired from a career in the Air Force, Graham uses his education and technical expertise to lead the Fayetteville CSI team. Pulling up figures on his computer, Graham estimates that the team processes around 380 cases each month, though some months are busier than others. Last night he said one technician responded to three shooting incidents, one of which was a homicide. The automobile involved in the incident was in the garage getting processed for DNA and fingerprints during our interview.
For every hour on the scene, there are two hours of reports that need to be written. “The technicians routinely work five to ten cases a day without any downtime,” explained Graham. "Upon going to the scene to collect the evidence, they have to come back to the office, process it and type up the full report and mark the diagrams as well as perform extra photography if needed. It makes for long hours everyday."
Taking us for a tour of “the clean room,” Officer Erin McElyea, a member of the forensics team demonstrated how blood and other bodily fluids are processed through the use of chemicals and specialized equipment. Looking through amber colored glasses, she turned off the lights and the chemically processed fingerprint cards glowed brightly on the examining table. Each piece of evidence serves as a piece of the puzzle towards each case and McElyea thoroughly enjoys the technical aspect that the job brings.
When a robbery occurs at a convenience store day or night, Kari Ellis is always called to the scene. Ellis handles all the crimes that have been caught on tape. She has been with the department for 10 years and started off as an intern in 2001. While Ellis has performed the work of a Forensic Crime Scene Technician, she is the “go-to gal” as their sole Forensic Video Specialist. Numerous awards have been presented to her. She has been routinely recognized for expertise in her line of work, developing new protocols and procedures that help the CSI team process a scene. She also educates the public and business owners that have video recording equipment installed.
The level of technical expertise it takes teamed with patient viewing and analyzing the loops of video frames connected to a crime scene is labor intensive. However, Ellis joked that she relieves stress while supporting the Fayetteville economy through retail therapy and loves to shop.
Today, criminal justice and forensic science is a popular career choice, but that makes serving as crime scene investigator even tougher competition. After going behind the scenes with our Fayetteville CSI, these criminologists showed us why there is a need for a solid science background to help solve crime.