I am Stacey Wells, a Crime Scene Specialist (CSS) with the Austin Police Department (APD).
I have been working for APD for over 3 years. I worked crime scenes in south Florida for over a year before APD and been doing internships in the field since 2000 (started in college.).
What kinds of cases do you work?
I work all major crimes involving persons but not property crimes (burglaries, etc.) Here is a list to give you an idea:
Assaults (shootings, stabbings)
Traffic fatality/serious injury collision
Officer involved shooting (or incidents)
Injury to children
Death scenes (suicide, natural if of an unusual age for death, accidental)
Arson death scenes
What kind of training and education do you need to be a Crime Scene Specialist?
To be a crime scene specialist with most police departments you need a Bachelors degree in a related field or a science field. Of course with this being said, it varies according to the department. Some departments want more advanced degrees where others feel a Bachelors degree is sufficient. I currently have a B.S and Masters in forensic science.
Most departments have civilians working crime scene, but there are still a few departments which have police officers working the crime scenes. The majority of the departments are trying to go to civilians because of our training and education (most officers typically don’t have advanced science degrees).
What types of evidence do you collect?
I collect anything and everything! It always depends according to the scenes that I come across. Here are some examples:
If it’s a robbery scene, I will collect the robbery note, blood, DNA, the firearm, etc…and will process the scene and evidence for fingerprints.
At a sexual assault, I will collect the bedding, swabs from unknown stains (found using the alternate light source ALS/UV), fingerprints, cuttings from floor where stains were found, penile swabs from suspect if found, etc.
Death scene (natural, accidental)…I usually will take photographs and collect any item pertinent to the case (cell phone, etc). At a suicide, I will collect the suicide note, weapon, ligature, etc.
At a homicide, I will collect anything and everything even if it may not look like evidence. I have collected items such as broken glass found (which might match to a suspect vehicle), gum (which could lead to DNA), fired cartridge casings, weapons, projectiles, swabs, fingerprints, everything. Usually on these scenes we can have the minimum of 10 items of evidence up to 100 or more items of evidence. I will collect the major items (the items you can’t miss as being pertinent), and then the smaller items like casting a shoe impression from a possible suspect’s shoe outside of a door.
Take us through the steps you take at a crime scene.
Obviously, this varies a little according to what type of call comes in. Here are a few examples:
Robbery-Respond to the scene, meet with officers or detectives on scene. Find out details relating the case. Take photographs of the scene. Overall, midrange and close-ups of the items of evidence. Photograph the entry and exit, and the direction of travel the suspect fled in. Then collect evidence (if any), swab for potential DNA (door handles, glasses, cash register, etc). Then process (use black powder) to collect fingerprints.
Sexual Assault- Respond to the scene, meet with officers or detectives on scene. Take photographs of overall scene, etc. Use Alternate light source (ALS or UV) to illuminate the scene for possible biological material (semen, bodily fluids, hairs/fibers). Either collect those items (if bedding) or cut it (from floor, carpet, car). Then process for fingerprints and collect any other items of evidence
Traffic Fatalities- Most of the time these are just photographs depicting the scene. Very detailed photographs since we go to court on a lot of these which are DWI related.
Homicide- Respond to the scene, meet with officers or detectives on scene. Find out details relating the case. I start off by photographing the scene after the detectives, myself and my supervisor walk the scene. Then my supervisor will videotape the scene. Then I will lay down tent numbers (DAC: she is referring to these evidence "tents") and rephotograph the entire scene. Then my supervisor will re-videotape the scene again. Then detectives will go through the scene and see what is pertinent and what needs to be done (at this point we will be already on hour 4-6). Then I will begin collecting the evidence. I will then process for fingerprints, collect DNA, use the ALS to find biological evidence, use any chemical reagent to search for blood, etc.
Then we will do another thorough search, sketch, etc….by the time we leave it could have been 8-20 hours after we arrived on scene….and this could be after an 8 hour shift already. The longest homicide scene I worked was 26 hours total time on scene.
How long after a murder does the crime scene tape stay up?
It varies according to the case, but most times we take down the tape when crime scene unit leaves the scene. For outdoor scenes, once we are finished collecting evidence the crime scene tape will be removed. If there is a chance that other items will be needed or the scene will be jeopardized, then the tape can stay up for a while.
On scenes inside of a residence, we will usually close up the doors once we leave and leave a POLICE sticker on the door. That way we will know if anyone tampered with the door while we were away.
Alternatively we will have the tape up, and an officer stand by for a while until we are completely finished with the scene.
Usually we got everything we need first time around but after interviewing suspects and victims friends and families we may find out more information and go back for follow-ups.
Any vehicles related to a homicide investigation are towed and stored at our secure forensic science bay at a towing company. These could be stored here for anywhere from a month to a year plus.
Who holds the key to the house if the occupants are dead and/or jailed?
After a crime scene, the police will hold onto a key until they locate the next of kin or owner of the property.
When a scene is discovered, apartment complexes have keys that the office keeps. The office can give the key to officers or detectives. Family members also have keys and will allow us access.
If we are able to see a body through the window but the door is locked, then we are able to gain entry due to a check welfare type status (Officers/Fire/EMS will kick in the door).
How do you decide where to dust for prints at a murder scene?
Usually you will start with the points of entry and exit (door handles, door jams, entire area of door that could have been touched and same with windows). If things were obviously moved around you will process those also. Then if a suspect touched an item (like a bottle) you will process those, or if a chair was moved, etc.
Most of the time you process, then process again, then process again…this way you covered all of your bases. On a homicide a while back I processed the wall near where the decedent was found. A little “out there” to process this but I did it to cover my bases. And guess what? A print!
How many cases do you work on in an average week?
During the summer months we usually get pretty busy. For some reason July is a busy month. This July I had four homicides in one week.
Usually I can work anywhere between 1-10 -- this week I worked 10 calls. Our other CSU was busy so I worked a lot of calls, which ranged from car-jackings, business robberies, bomb calls, rapes, kidnappings, and shootings/stabbings.
During the Christmas season, our robbery and suicide calls go through the roof so we stay pretty busy.
All that said, some months we can go days without a call!
What's the best part about your job?
The feeling I get when I walk out of that courtroom knowing that suspect will never hurt that person or someone else again. Had a father who raped his daughter for years. He got 37 years and so won’t see the light of day again. That’s rewarding. I also love the feeling I get when I see results of my work, like when I get that hit on my fingerprint or DNA giving us the identity of a suspect.
What's the worst part about your job?
The hours are long, and can be hard, hot, and miserable sometimes. I can be on a homicide for hours without eating, drinking (or even using the bathroom!), and on my feet. No sitting down…just working for all of those hours. The quickest homicide scene I worked was 7 hours. That’s still 7 hours without food, water, bathroom break, or sitting down!
I also work a lot of unsociable hours, which is hardly surprising since crimes are most often committed in the evening or at night. So I put in lots and lots of late nights and late evenings. I can be at a scene thinking I’m about to be done, then find myself there until the next morning.
I suppose, like most people, I would like a pay increase to reflect some of these hardships, and the level of training and education we have. But wouldn't we all?!
That said, the rewards definitely outweigh the negatives. There is nothing like waking up and loving your job, and I do: I want to go to work. I strive for perfection and love to do my job well. I love knowing that I will make a difference in someone’s life even though they will never know I participated, or even know my name. Being a behind-the-scenes person who happened to catch the person that killed their family member… then testifying against them is worth all of it!