Inside SJPD CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATORS - Forensic Scientists solving crimes

Communications sends out a call on a suspicious death. Within minutes, San Jose Police Department (SJPD) patrol officers arrive on the scene. After surveying the location and the deceased, the on-scene patrol commander makes the judgement call to bring in the Crime Scene Unit (CSU), the crime scene investigators of the SJPD.

CSU officers are the scientists of the SJPD. They thoroughly document a crime scene. By identifying, collecting, analyzing and preserving physical evidence, CSU investigators either corroborate or refute witness and suspect testimonies. Their job is to prove whether a crime has been committed. At SJPD, the CSU is part of the Homicide Unit and collaborates with Homicide detectives. The unit responds to homicides, officer involved shootings, in custody deaths, child deaths, certain types of suicides, suspicious deaths, and high profile violent crimes. CSU also assists other units at SJPD with evidence processing and training.

The CSI Effect

Due to the popularity of the long-running CSI television series, the general public often has misconceptions about the duties and capabilities of real world crime scene investigators. While it's true that CSU investigators gather and analyze physical evidence to solve crimes, they do not make arrests, handle bodies, or question witnesses. Nor does the CSU work with high-tech equipment that magically solve crimes in seconds with the push of a button. Yes, the CSU has sophisticated equipment that can analyze evidence like DNA, but processing evidence takes meticulous attention to detail and hard work. Results do not happen instantly.

Real World CSI (Crime Scene Investigation)

When the on-scene Patrol Commander decides that a crime scene needs the CSU, he or she contacts the Homicide Unit. The Homicide Commander dispatches detectives and notifies the CSU Commander, who sends out a crew of two or more CSU investigators. In the meantime, patrol has lockdown (contained) the perimeter of the crime scene and the witnesses. They prepare information about the victim, suspects and witnesses.

One CSU investigator arrives at the scene and is responsible for carefully documenting the case. Among the recorded details are: time of arrival, weather conditions, who did the briefing, who is present at the scene, how is the perimeter locked down, and how the scene looked when CSU arrived.

Meanwhile, the other CSU investigator drives up in a large van, which is a mobile evidence-processing vehicle. That investigator will be in charge of photographing and filming the crime scene throughout the investigation.

The on-scene Patrol Commander briefs the CSU investigators and Homicide detectives. Known witnesses, suspects, and victims are identified and triaged. The Homicide detectives question any suspects and witnesses.

Once the briefing and a walkthrough is over, the CSU alerts the County Coroner of the crime. In the Santa Clara Valley, only Coroners have jurisdiction over a body at a crime scene. At this point, the County Coroner and his/her crew are on standby. They do not come out until they receive a follow-up call from CSU. It is important that CSU finish documenting and collecting evidence without anything being disturbed or moved, including the body.

Once CSU investigators are done at the scene, they notify the Coroner that the crime scene has been preserved. When the Coroner and crew arrive, they are briefed by CSU. The Coroner surveys the victim and shares initial observations. Then, the Coroner's crew removes the body and transports it back to the Office of the Medical Examiner-Coroner. In the following days, the Coroner will share the examination findings with CSU investigators and Homicide detectives.

When CSU leaves the scene, the investigators take all evidence that are then processed and stored in a Technical Evidence room at SJPD. The CSU investigator's job is not over when the evidence is archived. The case still must be solved by a collaboration of CSU investigators with Homicide detectives, the Coroner, and other agencies. Drawing on their meticulous documentation and diagramming, CSU can reconstruct and re-enact scenes.

Additionally, CSU investigators prepare evidence for court trials and give courtroom testimonies. Here again, investigators encounter the CSI Effect as the public often has unrealistic expectations of the investigators. When a CSU investigator testifies in court, it is not uncommon for jurors to ask the detective why didn't he or she use a certain test or procedure as seen on the CSI television show. Too often, the tests or procedures are fictional and not real world crime scene investigation.

"Preservation and documentation of evidence are so important," notes Sergeant Stan McFadden, Supervisor of CSU. "Homicide trials normally happen five to eight years after the incident. At times, some of us are retired when the case goes to court. Testifying in court can be challenging because the goal of the defense attorney is to put doubt in the jurors' minds. That's why documentation is key because you have to recollect things from years ago. Regarding Crime Scene and the processing of evidence, the attorneys are going to challenge us in the areas of collection ... how we preserved the evidence ... making sure we maintained that chain of custody."

The History of CSU at SJPD

Prior to the formation of the CSU, SJPD patrol officers were responsible for the identification, collection, and preservation of physical evidence. With a huge increase in homicides during the late 1960s and 1970s, the SJPD decided that it needed a dedicated crime scene investigation team.

At that time, the Narcotics Unit (now Covert Response Unit) had a stakeout van, cameras, and other resources in their undercover operations that could be used in crime scene investigation. To expedite the creation of a crime scene unit, the SJPD assigned two sergeants and two officers from the Narcotics Unit to the newly formed CSU.

Among the initial CSU members was Sergeant Audrey Parrot, who still teaches crime scene processing and fingerprint identification. Sergeant Parrot recalled that in the early days, Narcotics and CSU had to share a van. This created a challenging situation whenever the two units had calls at the same time.

Eventually, the SJPD provided the CSU with two used vans that were previously owned by the telephone company. The vehicles were empty panel vans with no equipment. Sergeant Parrot was good at woodworking and took the vans home to outfit them with shelves and storage compartments

From these humble beginnings, the CSU developed over the years and is now well equipped with a fully outfitted modern mobile laboratory..

The CSU mobile crime laboratory.

Collaboration is the Key

Solving a homicide relies on cooperation and collaboration. CSU works closely with Homicide detectives, the County Coroner, and other agencies. "Although our roles are separate, we're trying to get to same end result, " comments Sergeant McFadden. "Homicide detectives are trying to solve the case via statements. We (CSU) are trying to solve the case via evidence. We collaborate to build a case."

With only one sergeant and six officers to provide 24 x 7 city-wide coverage, CSU cannot come out to every scene of violence. For certain events, the SJPD uses Patrol Evidence Cars, which are patrol officers with training and certification from CSU. If a violent event does not end in a homicide, a Patrol Evidence Car is usually dispatched. Sergeant McFadden points out, "We rely heavily on Patrol Evidence Cars. There are cases that don't result in homicides. You can have a shooting, stabbing, or domestic violence that need the Patrol Evidence Car officers to ensure that evidence is processed the correct way." Currently, the SJPD has approximately 10 to 15 Patrol Evidence Cars operating on each shift.

Evidence is processed in the Technical Evidence Room (TER) and meticulously documented.


The CSU is a five-year assignment at SJPD. Sergeant McFadden explains, "It takes about three years to be completely trained and for you to be comfortable with the training. So, you're able to render professional opinions with confidence."

When openings in CSU are available, a posting goes out in the SJPD. Interested officers write a memo in response to the posting. CSU candidates go through a selection process consisting of a practical exercise (e.g. performing a cell phone extraction), a written test on current crime scene topics (e.g. video surveillance and cell phone equipment), and an oral assessment in front of Homicide supervisors, a Homicide detective, and a Crime Scene investigator. For the practical exercise, the candidate is given a set of instructions. Problem solving and the ability to follow step-by-step instructions are critical to CSU work. And, due to the probability of long hours, the SJPD look for candidates that can function with a good attitude even when fatigued.

Once an officer is accepted into the CSU, they immediately undergo training. The training takes places in various institutions throughout the United States. The courses include crime scene reconstruction, bloodstain analysis and interpretation, forensic diagramming, shooting reconstruction, human remains recovery, forensic photography, digital evidence extraction, and laser measuring.

One of the modern equipment used by CSU, the 3-D laser scanner is used to diagram a crime scene in 3-D. 360 degree scans are made from different view points at a scene. The scans allow investigators to return to a scene at any time (even years later) and make accurate measurements.

Into the 21st Century

The CSU has evolved over the years. Crime analysis techniques are different from those used back in the 1970s, when the unit began. And, the equipment and techniques continue to change. "The thing about forensics and crime scene processing," explains Sergeant McFadden, "Is that when you get something new, the industry is just about finished making something better. That's how rapidly things change. Our current crime scene rig is being replaced next summer because it's getting outdated. We'll be going in a new direction where we'll be able to do more out in the field."

"We have a very close-knit group. We laugh about the fact that we often have more dinners together as a unit than we have with our families. So, once a year, we have a function where we bring our loved ones together. Our loved ones get to know each other, like a family. CSU is a very demanding assignment." — Sergeant Stan McFadden, Supervisor of CSU.

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SJPD San Jose Police Department


Brook Dain, Parker Photography, and Curt Fukuda

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