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Forensic Evidence: Collection vs. Intelligence GatheringBy Inspector Bradley Donais, Unit Commander for Forensic Identification Services, Toronto Police ServiceIt is a viciously cold night in February and homicide is called to attend a shooting in a sparsely populated area of your city. As your investigators approach the scene, they note several pieces of evidence that need to be collected before the forecasted heavy snow rolls in. Your forensics team is called in to attend and sends two officers to begin the documentation and collection of items that lay about the scene.There is a blood trail leading away from the nearly frozen body. The body lays clutching a cell phone, and the packed-down snow around suggests there was a struggle. There is a knife lying beside the body along with four visible cartridge cases. Seemingly following the blood trail is a crisp set of footwear impressions that seem to lead to tire tracks where a vehicle once sat. This is a forensic specialist’s dream. All the evidence laid out and waiting to be collected in a slow methodical dance of intricate detail that could take days or weeks to play out. Each single piece of evidence tells a story to a trier of fact as narrated by the forensic specialist.But this is 2023 – there must be some technology or technique that could hasten this process and provide information to the investigators quickly. Who is this person and what may have motivated this attack? These questions are often left to the traditional police investigators. Witnesses and related individuals can help but can also mislead the investigation, intentionally or otherwise.Surprisingly, forensic investigation has not really changed much in the last 50 years. Of course, science has brought us DNA testing and made certain techniques more sensitive, but the basic examination of a scene remains virtually unchanged. Forensic investigators attend a scene, document using notes and photos and then collect items one by one. Each piece is brought back to a lab where it is itemized, examined, analyzed and stored. Eventually, some information is gleaned from the physical evidence left behind and forwarded to the investigators. For the above scene, it could be weeks or months before information comes back from the firearms evidence, the footwear and the phone download. The fingerprint information from the deceased could be returned in a reasonable amount of time if your agency has their own AFIS. However, even that must wait until the photographs or lifts can be physically transported back to the office.All these processes waste valuable time, which could mean the difference in stopping another attack. Let us add to the above scenario that the victim left at our scene is a well-connected organized crime leader. This may suggest that retaliation attacks are imminent. But in the traditional examination, it took two to three hours to confirm an identity. Now let us adjust the scenario to a terrorist attack. Are there more attacks planned? Where will they be? Who else is involved?The problem lies not in the motivation or the techniques available, but in the focus and training of the forensic specialists. Traditionally, they are focused on court presentations.We are taught to sacrifice speed for accuracy. In fact, in forensic circles, a speedy examination of a scene is often viewed as sloppy. This is where technology can help us. We do not need to sacrifice speed for accuracy. We can have it all. The challenge is that the old model of sending two investigators to a scene must be reconsidered. We must also reconsider the generalist forensic investigator model. If we expect efficiency, we must employ the proper people to document, collect and analyze the evidence. Most importantly, however, we need to train our people to search for and distribute intelligence while keeping the rules of evidence in mind.I would like to focus on three areas of forensic investigation: technology, scene approach/process and mindset training.THE PROBLEM LIES NOT IN THE MOTIVATION OR THE TECHNIQUES AVAILABLE , BUT IN THE FOCUS AND TRAINING OF THE FORENSIC SPECIALISTS.TECHNOLOGY Fingerprints Technology exists to provide intelligence from the scene in real time. Real-time fingerprint scanners or Bluetooth/Wi-Fi-enabled cameras can transmit fingerprints to AFIS for immediate search. In many cases, this could improve confirmation of identification by hours. The transmission of images back to the office could also increase the speed at which other analytical evidence can be examined.In our original case, this means that the victim is identified and investigators are aware of possible retaliatory attacks within minutes. The footwear impressions could also be examined and potentially narrowed down to a brand while investigators are still on the scene.Again, the technology exists to develop DNA profiles for comparison and elimination within minutes. Historically, these processes would take days or weeks. In fact, some of these rapid systems are portable and can be utilized on the scene. In the above example, an elimination sample could be obtained from the victim and compared to the blood trail leaving the scene. This could provide a suspect’s DNA profile before the scene is cleared and possibly before the investigators arrive.Technological Examination Everyone carries a cell phone. Not only do we carry them, but we also store all our personal information inside of them, including phone calls, schedules and photos. Investigators recognize that some of our best evidence is gleaned from personal technological devices. However, in most organizations, the tech crime section is so overloaded that it takes weeks or months to obtain the relevant information. There are now devices that can be deployed in the field to download the initial data to begin the investigative process. Again, this information can be made available within minutes (subject to required judicial authorization). A full forensic examination can be completed in the following days. In the above example, we could obtain the victim’s last phone calls/text messages within minutes.SCENE APPROACH/PROCESS To take advantage of these scene exploitation techniques, we need to rethink the way we approach scenes. One or two forensic specialists are not physically capable of completing all the above tasks in a timely fashion. A team approach is required. As mentioned above, the forensic examination of a crime scene has changed little over the last 50 years, while literally every other portion of the investigation has changed immensely. It is time for a new approach. The addition of a forensic manager (similar to an incident commander) position for major scenes as well as at-scene technicians would move us in the direction of rapid scene exploitation.Forensic Manager This individual would have a strong general knowledge of forensic techniques and processes, but would essentially manage the application and assignment of human resources at the scene. They would also be responsible for communication between the scene examiners/technicians and the investigators. This is similar to the command structure in Major Case Management.At-Scene Technicians These individuals would not enter the scene but would be in the warm zone ready to receive and exploit evidence from the scene as provided by the forensic specialists. Operation of the rapid DNA device, tech download device and transmission of images would fall to these people.MINDSET/TRAINING The very word “forensics” refers to the court process. Although the court process needs to be at front of mind when collecting and analyzing evidence, it can no longer be the only focus. Investigations are fluid and criminals are dynamic. Just like every other aspect of life in 2024, things move fast. As public servants, we are expected to move faster. The role that solid forensic work and efficient scene exploitation plays in community safety and well-being cannot be overstated. A community that sees their police agency solving crimes quickly and securing convictions based on solid evidence is a community that trusts its police.The mindset change that must start in our initial training is the intelligence-gathering aspect. Taking days and weeks to analyze and distribute information is no longer acceptable. Not only can this delay result in more carnage, but it can also often eliminate secondary evidence (i.e., the overwriting of surveillance footage). By assigning the correct number of people with the correct skills and technology, we can distribute information in hours. By deploying portable devices and wireless technology to scenes as part of the initial forensic response we can set the table for investigative success quickly.Various services are at different points in the process of implementing changes. One giant step has been the formation of an Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) committee dealing with forensic topics. This not only gives forensic specialists a voice in Ontario, but it also brings us together to share ideas and processes.In short, as leaders, we need to rethink the way forensic units are funded and staffed. We must make the rapid exploitation of scenes and distribution of information a priority. More importantly, we must help our police leaders, community members and forensic personnel understand the role that we play in the broader mission. For too long the forensic unit has been viewed as an expensive necessity that is strictly reactionary. An efficient forensic response to crime with professional specialists prevents future criminal activity both directly and indirectly.Inspector Bradley Donais is Unit Commander for the Forensic Identification Services at Toronto Police Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.