Training hones military cops' evidence-gathering skills
April 28, 2003
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Only a trained eye would have seen or even cared about the boot print.
The faint impression on a dirt mound surrounded by tall weeds, in an obscure field, seemed insignificant. Yet last week on Foster, a group of military cops and investigators focused sharp scrutiny on it.
They were in a forensics course, learning to search for and collect evidence from crime scenes.
On the third day of training, class members entered the field toting large black suitcases with camera gear, tripods, notebooks, measuring instruments, spray cans and freezer bags filled with a plaster mix.
Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent Burt Nakasone pointed to tire tracks and hunted for a patch of dirt to make a decent shoe print.
To preserve the dirt impression, the agent lightly sprayed it with lacquer, showing his 17 students how to prepare the print to cast it, intact, in plaster.
It’s often the small things like shoe prints, tire tracks, trace fibers or body fluids that link suspects to crimes, said NCIS agent Jeff Rodriguez.
“Physical evidence doesn’t lie,” he explained. “Confessions or court testimonies are great. They’re a cherry on top of everything else. But they’re often contested. ... If we can articulate on the stand how we collected the evidence, it will tell its own story. ... This is what will put bad guys, criminals, behind bars.”
Part of a team that responds to major criminal cases, the two agents said they routinely travel around the Pacific theater and the Middle East. Some months ago, they said, they helped with a bombing investigation in Zamboanga, Philippines.
The weeklong NCIS-sponsored training was the first of its kind in Okinawa since 1998, said Nakasone, NCIS’s regional forensics consultant for the Far East. He and Rodriguez said they would give the same course in Guam next month.
Normally, agents go through forensics training at a federal training center in Glynco, Ga. But since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, investigative agencies have had to focus more on preventing terrorism and protecting assets, said Nakasone.
“We don’t have the manpower to cover 100 percent of our normal responsibilities,” he said, noting that investigative agencies have had to “defer” many cases they would normally cover to “first responders,” such as base security forces.
Most of the students have had some training in collecting crime-scene evidence but others had not, said Nakasone. “To a certain degree, we have an obligation to train them,” he said. “The material we’re giving in one week is like feeding them with a fire hose. They’re learning about crime scene management — how to document, diagram and photograph evidence. ... It’s just a basic foundation that gives them the tools to know what to do when solving crimes.”
The training is invaluable, said Staff Sgt. Gloria Bly, an Air Force cop with Kadena Air Base’s 18th Security Forces Squadron. “If you didn’t have your eye trained, you wouldn’t know to look for certain clues,” she said.
But skills quickly become rusty when not put to use, said Bly, noting that she sees few cases requiring crime scene investigations. The training keeps skills sharp, added Petty Office 2nd Class Kirsten Purcell, a master-at-arms attached to the Navy’s White Beach port facility on Okinawa.
“You can never get enough training,” she said.
To cap the five-day session, NCIS agents created a mock crime scene to test their students’ abilities to collect evidence. “This course wouldn’t be effective unless students got hands-on training, not just theoretical stuff you learn in the classroom,” said Nakasone.
The training should pay big dividends, said Rodriguez. “It’s priceless if it helps investigators get evidence to court and leads to a conviction.”