Getting Into a Crime Scene


My friend Ben Ireland, author of the Young Adult Urban Fantasy Billy Blacksmith series asked me via Twitter:

In my WIP I have a murder scene—39 workers slain at a work site—we need my MC and his demonic friend to get into the crime scene. Who would be allowed in? A police officer? A detective? Mulder and Scully? Large outdoor worksite, but it’s pretty remote. They have tents hiding the bodies from anyone that can manage to look over the fence. And my MC has a disguise so he can pass off as a legitimate police officer.

Thanks, Ben. The answer is too complex to be answered via Twitter so I’m posting the response here. I’ll start with general procedures then move into some specifics. Keep in mind that I’m not a law enforcement officer nor do I play one on TV.

The first responder is generally the patrolman. His first job is to clear the site of any danger. They don’t know if the killer is still on site. With a large and/complex site, they may call for backup before doing this. Once danger is cleared, then he will render aid to any victims. They may not be dead, but injured. The first officer will call in the incident and request detectives and maybe an ambulance and paramedics. He will then secure the area to make sure evidence does not get contaminated.

If paramedics and ambulance has been called, they may arrive before the first policeman. They will often attempt to render aid to the victim. This will likely include moving the victim, which can cause loss or contamination of evidence, but keeping the victim alive should be the first priority.

The first officer on the scene will have a clipboard and everyone entering the scene will sign in and out. Name, department, rank, date, and time of entrance and exit are recorded. There should be a single way in and the same way out so as not to contaminate things. On TV you often see the detective drive up to the scene, get out of his car, then lift the crime scene tape to get under it and wander right up to the body. No way it’s done like this. That’s a trope.

The first detectives should get an update from the original officer. They will usually do a visual inspection of the scene and body and may take some pictures with their phones. They’ll generally request forensics and coroner/medical examiner. Additional uniformed officers will be arriving to do crowd and traffic control and help guard the scene. Supervising officers, lieutenants, sergeants, captains, maybe even the chief are likely to show up. They should not go into the scene. They are all supervisors, not investigators. Even the mayor and district attorney should be kept outside the crime scene tape.

The coroner or medical examiner (ME) will be in charge of the body. The homicide detective may request that forensics remove trace evidence from the body before the ME does his examination. Photos of the scene will be taken before any examination of the body. During this time, forensics may inspect the surrounding area.

After the ME has completed his preliminary investigation and taken the body, forensics will inspect the immediate area. Pictures are again taken so they have before and after photos. After this, homicide detectives will again take the single route in and inspect things. They may already know the identity of the victim if ID was found on or near the body.

Depending on the scene and evidence collection, the police may keep custody of the area anywhere from hours to days. I heard of a case where a body was found in a house and the ME was not available, so police turned on the A/C to keep the house cool and reduce decomposition. Two days later the ME arrived.

Now turning to specifics of Ben’s question. Because the crime scene is in a rural area, the first officer on the scene will probably be a deputy sheriff. It may be difficult to keep the scene clear of wildlife due to the location and size of the area. Thirty-nine bodies is a lot. The Sheriff would likely call for help from neighboring law enforcement, the state Bureau of Investigation, and possibly the FBI. However, the Sheriff will run the investigation as it is his jurisdiction. Several medical examiners would be needed to process the bodies before decomp sets in. The police would have control of the scene probably for several days.

As for your MC, if he could produce the correct ID, real or fake, he could get in with other officers needed to process the scene. Looky-loos, supervisors, DA, etc. would likely be kept far away, maybe several miles, from the fence in case there is any evidence outside of it.

One other thing you should research. There is a difference between a medical examiner and a coroner. The coroner is usually an elected office and pretty much anyone can be elected. In some counties in California, the sheriff is also the coroner. A medical examiner has a medical degree is is usually appointed. Check which one is used where your story take place.

Now, having said all this, it’s your story and you can write it how you want. Thanks for asking, Ben and I hope this answers your question.

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