CSI: the real scene
Collecting evidence is hot, smelly work, and the labs are more like high school chemistry than Hollywood. A technician says, "There are no good calls for us."
By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published July 10, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG - The third call of the shift came just as Brannon Douglas began driving back to the office with a partial fingerprint he managed to coax off a crack pipe.
A woman on the north side of the city arrived home from work to find that thieves had smashed a small bathroom window, crawled inside, and ransacked her house. St. Petersburg police needed a forensic technician to comb the place for clues.
Douglas, 27, arrives at a small house and finds the woman and her daughter lounging outside. He walks up with a small suitcase filled with supplies: brushes, fingerprint powder, tape. He smiles and wipes sweat from his forehead as he walks into the muggy home, filled with mosquitoes that flew in through the broken window.
"It's the CSI guy," the daughter says.
Ever since forensic science took over prime-time TV, technicians like Douglas are in high demand at crime scenes. Jurors used to watching star actors on television shows like CSI pull fingerprints and match criminals to DNA samples in minutes expect similar evidence in the courtroom.
Advances in technology also have made collecting such evidence easier, but not nearly as easy as it looks on television.
"In many cases, it's absolutely imperative that you have some kind of evidence," said Sgt. Ray Waldo, who oversees the department's forensic unit. "Jurors want more. ... They want the actual evidence tying the guy to the scene."
The reality is more like Douglas, one of a dozen forensic technicians at the St. Petersburg Police Department who handle about 10,000 calls for service a year. They spend hours every day taking photographs of murder victims in the heat and hunting for pieces of skin and strands of hair in dark, smelly rooms. And they wait months for state labs to process DNA samples.
"It's not like CSI where you can get a DNA sample in two minutes while wearing high heels," Douglas said.
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For decades, forensic technicians were the neglected stepchildren of police departments. They staffed forensic teams with rookies who wanted to work in law enforcement, but weren't cut out to be police officers. The job consisted of little more than dusting for fingerprints.
"In the past, a lot of people went into forensics because they tried police work and didn't like it," Waldo said. "They were high school educated. We didn't require degrees. They weren't really considered cops."
But advances in DNA and computer technology over the years have elevated forensic work. It became easier to match fingerprints to criminals through computer databases. Crime labs obtained technology that let them obtain DNA samples from a few drops of blood.
Around the same time, television shows and movies tapped into the rising public interest. The CSI franchise began in 2000 with a single show on CBS. In 2006, the three CSI shows - CSI, CSI: NY and CSI: Miami - routinely have occupied three of the top 10 spots in the Nielsen ratings, getting about 10-million viewers each.
The result: Forensic evidence became much more important, often crucial to winning convictions.
Thousands of college students have enrolled in forensic science classes. Forensic units are now staffed by specialists. When Waldo posts job openings, he gets dozens of applications from qualified candidates.
Many viewers become jurors. Prosecutor Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant in local State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office, says attorneys call it "The CSI effect." He asks potential jurors if they watch the show to see if they're aware that it usually takes months to get DNA samples processed, not minutes.
"It's one of the issues I encounter very frequently," Bartlett said. "You have to make sure you discuss with jurors the issues and circumstances surrounding the collection of evidence and DNA evidence."
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St. Petersburg isn't the only department with a big workload. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has several dozen specialists who handled just over 17,000 calls for service last year. The Sheriff's Office also contracts to do crime scene work for other municipalities in the county.
St. Petersburg's forensic unit offices resemble high school chemistry labs more than the cool, high-tech labs featured on television. There are neat, black-topped tables, odd-looking gadgets, and cans of fingerprint powder.
Some machines heat superglue into a gas that makes it easier to identify fingerprints. A light gun uses different wavelengths so technicians can see evidence: One wavelength makes semen stains stand out; another highlights strands of hair.
On a recent June day, Douglas came to work for the evening shift about 2 p.m. He caught up on paperwork and sat down, waiting for calls. Before getting a two-year degree in crime scene technology from St. Petersburg College in 2002 and later joining the Police Department, he held a variety of jobs at Busch Gardens.
His first assignment is to photograph two houses involved in a murder investigation. Then, he gets a call to dust a crack pipe that an arrested woman threw out the window to see if he can lift a fingerprint. On the way back to the office, officers ask him to help investigate the residential burglary.
While driving, Douglas muses on the nature of forensic work. Police officers get the occasional "good call": preventing a robbery, saving a kid.
Forensic technicians don't. They come in after a crime to hunt for clues.
"There are no good calls for us," Douglas said.
He doesn't watch CSI, and doesn't tell his wife the details of what he does: "I don't want to gross her out."
After looking at the burglarized house, Douglas walks to the back yard and puts on blue latex gloves. He follows the path taken by the thieves, who got away with jewelry. The lack of prints suggests that the thief put on socks after entering so he wouldn't leave any prints behind. Douglas also finds a sock with a drop of blood inside that the thief may have worn.
Douglas begins by dipping his brush into fingerprint powder, and dusting the broken glass from the window. Then, he dusts the lawn chairs and the windowsill. After going inside, he dusts the cabinets and jewelry boxes tossed to the ground.
Douglas brushes with a light touch, sometimes twirling the brush in a circle, sometimes dusting side to side. Fingerprints are mostly water, and it doesn't take much to smudge or destroy them.
He even dusts a plastic container of strawberries that the thief took out of the refrigerator, apparently after getting hungry. He keeps his arms out and his head back so sweat doesn't drip on evidence.
It takes him about half an hour of dusting before he finally scores: a fingerprint on a small red wooden box. He tapes an impression of the print to the back of a notecard and prepares to head back to the office.
The police now have a clue. The owner of the house says "thank you" as Douglas leaves.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.