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Citizens Police Academy-week 9, part 1: SWAT

SWAT! Got your attention? Last week’s CPA class was a visit to the SWAT team, EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) team, and the K-9 Patrol unit. You know, the class we’d all been waiting for. 😉

We started with SWAT, which stands for Special Weapons and Tactics. In Fairfax County, the SWAT team deals with 12-15 barricades (hostage situations) each year. So what do they do with the rest of their time?

Plan for and serve high-risk warrants. SWAT serves more than 100 high-risk warrants per year, usually for narcotics investigations or anything else where the suspect is likely to be armed. Planning often takes a week or two during which the team surveils the location, learns as much about the layout of the dwelling as possible, and develops a plan.

The team usually moves in at night. If working in an interior corridor (e.g. in an apartment building), they will block the hall exits and stairs, stop the elevators, and tie off the other residents’ doors to keep them from coming into the corridor during the raid. They may even turn off the electricity or air conditioning. Since the fireproof metal doors common to apartment buildings in Virginia don’t respond well to the battering ram, the SWAT team generally breaches the entry with a shotgun or small explosive (a water bag charge).

They kick in the door, throw down a flash-bang, and swarm in to secure the home and arrest the suspect, sometimes setting up a bright light to disorient or redirect the suspect (who will usually avoid the light).

Train SWAT from other areas. Fairfax County’s SWAT team is known as a Tier 1 team (the highest level). They are also the only full-time team in Virginia. As such, they help train other teams around the State and region.

To qualify for a full-time team, the NTOA (National Tactical Officers Association) requires at least 12 members and the ability to deploy as many as 22 members for an incident. Most counties don’t have the budget for that. FCPD has 12 full-time SWAT members and 17 supplemental officers with whom they fill openings on the full-time team.

Ongoing training. The SWAT team is required to spend 25% of its non-operating time in training. They train for all types of situations, including rooftop insertion from a helicopter, shooting from a helicopter, active shooter scenarios (e.g. school, workplace), and domestic barricades. In addition, they spend up to two hours per shift keeping up their physical fitness. (And it shows!)

Dignitary protection. We’re right next to D.C., so when the President or other high-ranking political officials come into Virginia, the SWAT team (as well as the rest of the FCPD) support the Secret Service’s efforts.

The SWAT team has some pretty cool equipment. In Fairfax County, each SWAT member is given a take-home vehicle stocked with a gun safe to store their small arms, a subgun, and a longer gun (similar to an AR-15 or AK-47). In addition to firearms, the cargo space is stuffed with all the gear and equipment they need to respond to an incident.

The SWAT team is an elite unit that requires a high level of physical fitness, an ability to make good decisions quickly under high stress, and excellent shooting skills. Only a small percentage of applicants will make it. And they recently had a woman make it through. If I remember correctly, she's the first one in FCPD.

So, that's SWAT in a nutshell. In my next post, I'll cover EOD and K-9 Patrol.

Citizens Police Academy-week 8: helicopter & animal services divisions

Last Thursday my CPA group started out at the FCPD Helicopter Division. The division has two helicopters, each of which has a crew of three ready to go twenty-four hours a day: one pilot and two flight officers (police officers who are also nationally certified paramedics).

The Bell 407 helicopters (soon to be upgraded to Bell 429) are used primarily for medevac and police missions. FCPD was the first law enforcement unit in the country to add Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) surveillance devices to its helicopters. FLIR allows crews to search for suspects or missing persons via thermal imaging, and the footage can be downlinked to a scene commander on the ground, if needed.

In my ride-along on Friday, we were looking for the driver of the car that drove through a fence and totaled his car. The helicopter division supported that mission by using FLIR to search for him. The way it works, the hotter something is, the brighter white it glows. The cops call people on the screen “white Gumbys”. 😉

Crews can also fly with night-vision goggles (NVGs) so the pilot and front-seater can see in the dark. K-9 animals can be outfitted with tiny IR beacons to make them visible from the air without alerting a suspect to their location. The helicopter also has the ability to spotlight an area with IR, making it visible to those using night vision/FLIR, but not to the naked eye.

The FLIR cameras are now high-quality enough to produce exceptional video from half-a-mile or more away, and can also provide the latitude and longitude of the object/person in focus!

In 2009 the use of FLIR by the FCPD Helicopter Division contributed to 92 direct finds and 300 criminal charges filed.

Common types of missions include:

  • medevac for trauma incidents where an ambulance would take too long.
  • water rescues.
  • aerial reconnaissance and photography.
  • SWAT missions (rappelling or rooftop insertions, aerial gunnery).
  • vehicle and foot pursuits.
  • locating missing persons (e.g. children, Alzheimer’s patients), sometimes through Project Lifesaver which registers at-risk people and outfits them with a beacon the helicopter division can track (100% recovery rate since inception).
  • DOD train escorts.

The FCPD averages around 3000 missions per year, totaling approximately 1500 flight hours.

After the Helicopter Division presentation and tour, we headed over to the Animal Service Division. ASD is located at the county animal shelter.

Animal control officers (ACOs) are sworn police officers who go through the same academy and training, but they’re hired into the academy specifically to fill ACO positions, and they don’t generally cross over to the regular police force. The pay structure is also different.

Their job is to regulate and protect animals by enforcing the Virginia and Fairfax animal laws and ordinances. And, of course, to protect people.

The shelter is not no-kill, but they make every effort to place an animal with a good home, and will not euthanize an adoptable animal. The shelter takes all animals, small or large, and they offset capacity issues with an extensive fostering program.

ACOs investigate cases of animal abuse, hoarding (in this case, usually cats rather than household junk), and neglect. Even if they can’t bring charges against an owner, they can remove the animal from an unsafe situation.

Citizens Police Academy: ride-along

Think that police cruiser is following you, even though the lights and siren aren’t on? You’re probably right.

On Friday night, I rode with a police officer from my local station from eight at night until almost four in the morning. It’s one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve ever had.

Probably the biggest eye-opener for me during the ride-along was that the officer ran license plates almost constantly as we drove around. The cars didn’t have to be suspicious, just close enough to read the plate. The officer was looking for outstanding warrants for the owner, stolen vehicles, or anything other reason he might need to pull the driver over.

If the officer was suspicious and needed an excuse to stop someone, he could always pull them over for having a “felony air freshener”. 😉 Anything hanging from the rearview mirror is illegal in Virginia (not actually a felony), though cops will probably only stop someone specifically for that if the item is a potentially dangerous distraction or obstruction (e.g. a CD, large fuzzy dice). We didn’t resort to this during my ride.

The first traffic stop was a lady driving without her headlights. We followed her from a shopping center, figuring she’d get a clue and turn them on. Even after we flipped on the blue lights and shone the headlight in her rearview mirror, not only did she not figure it out, she didn’t stop for almost half a mile. After the officer ran her license and found no issues, she got a warning to stay alert.

The second stop was a man who kept crossing over the lane line. He was on the phone, and he too did not stop with the blue lights for almost a half mile. We had to give a quick siren burst before he pulled over to the shoulder. We were immediately joined by another officer who had been going the other way.

It’s common for officers to back each other up when they can.

On this stop–and all subseqent stops–I got out to listen and watch. The backup cop smelled something funny, so he got the man out of the car and talked to him while my officer searched the car for marijuana. Ultimately the car came up clean and the man got a ticket for “failure to pay full time attention”.

The third stop was a 16-year old kid driving home from some kind of sports practice. He was going 70 in a 35-mph zone! We were behind him for about half-a-mile (in light traffic) and he didn’t notice us until the blue lights came on. This stop was interesting because the offense was pretty bad. The kid could have received a ticket for reckless driving that includes a penalty of up to $1000 and the loss of his license until he was 21!

What saved the teen? It was the first-time he’d ever been pulled over (cops enter warnings into the database so you don’t get warned over and over with them thinking it’s your first offense). He was respectful to the officer. He appeared to be sober and lucid.

The cop didn’t want to ruin this kid’s life for the next five years, so he lectured him, gave him a ticket for “failure to observe a highway sign” (in this case, the speed limit sign), explained to him how bad the punishment could be, told him to tell his parents what happened (and that he’d check up), and let him know he’d be passing his name on to the school resource officer for the in-school cop to follow up with him and keep an eye on him.

Our first call of the night was for a trash can fire at a strip mall. Upon arrival there were two groups of teens (about 25 overall) hanging around at the direction of the firefighters who’d responded first.

Immediately, one 19-year-old kid (we’ll call him J) approached the officer and got in his face about why he was being detained and how he hadn’t done anything. He was practically in tears, and wouldn’t shut up while the officer tried to talk to the firefighters about what happened. The cop told J to sit down and asked for his ID. He sat and provided his VDL, but he started grousing about being on probation and just coming down to Chipotle to get a burrito.

J interrupted again saying basically “either arrest me or let me go”. He said he wasn’t involved with the fire and hadn’t done anything wrong. Well, he’d been drinking, but that’s it. About six shots of…something. It’s hard to explain what an idiot J was being, but when another police cruiser showed up, J got his wish: handcuffs and a seat in the back of our cruiser.

In addition to the fire, a girl got her purse stolen during the commotion. If I explained what an airhead this girl who was hanging out at eleven o’clock at night in a strip mall was, I’d never finish this blog. Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed. Especially when she asked me if I was J’s mom.

Girl, if I were J’s mom I wouldn’t have been standing by with my mouth shut. I’d have been telling him to shut his (while planning his year of punishment).

Another police officer showed up and they divvied up the three overlapping cases (fire, purse, drunk idiot). Then we took J to jail! He spent the entire drive alternating between friendly banter with the officer—whom he knew from previous incidents—and crying. The saddest part is that he knew he'd screwed up, but he couldn’t seem to stop acting like a jackass.

Every time he remembered he was going to jail, he started crying again. He’d been there before, and in his sobbing words, “Oh my God, jail sucks.”

Upon arrival at the adult detention center (ADC), we were buzzed into a “sally port” at the back of the building. Then we got J out and were buzzed into an airlock-type setup where the door closes behind you before the next one opens.

Let me tell you, the resounding clang of the metal door as it closes is pretty horrible. It was so loud I jumped, even on the way back out.

Inside, J had to stand at a line on the floor and let the sheriff’s deputies search him again (the sheriff's department runs the jails here). Then we went before the magistrate where the officer explained why he’d detained J: drunk in public (basically a way to get him off the streets so he wouldn’t get hurt or hurt anyone else).

The magistrate approved the arrest and we led J to in-processing. Once his information was entered into the database, we left him handcuffed to a chair in the waiting area.

The dumbest part was that if he’d just stayed cool at the fire scene and stayed out of the cop’s face, he probably wouldn’t have been arrested. He literally asked for it.

The next few hours we drove around running plates and following people who drifted over the line or made some other move that might mean they were driving intoxicated.

We responded to a call where a guy was thrown from a mechanical bull at a bar and broke his wrist. The injury was just a skin-break shy of being a compound fracture and was pretty nasty to look at. There was no commotion, so after the ambulance arrived, we left.

We stopped two 15-year-old boys jaywalking across a major road at midnight. The cop asked them where they were coming from/going to and their ages. They didn’t seem drunk or particularly nervous, and they were respectful. The officer admonished that it wasn’t safe to cross there, especially wearing dark clothing and told them to use the crosswalk next time and be safe.

The mom in me wondered why they were out that late by themselves.

The last big event of the night was a property hit and run. The driver of a car crashed through a fence and went over a hundred yards driving between the fence and row of trees before crashing out the end of the fence and coming to a stop. Along the way he hit several small pine trees, caved in his windshield, and sent fence posts flying.

Cruisers and a police helicopter searched the area to see if the driver was heading home on foot, but they didn’t find him. They weren’t so much trying to “catch” him as trying to make sure he hadn’t passed out somewhere while bleeding to death.

We figured out who the car’s owner was, and the cop actually recognized the name as the mother of a young man he’d dealt with before. After talking to the property owner (huge mansion/horse property) at two-thirty in the morning and getting the car towed to impound, we drove to the mother’s house to see if the driver was there.

By now it was about 3:15 am. She came to the door in pajamas, but didn’t seem scared or incredibly surprised. Turns out, she’d done this many times, and her son had called earlier to tell her about the accident. He had minor injuries and would probably go to the ER. His girlfriend had been driving behind him and picked him up from the accident scene.

Most likely the driver had been drinking and ran so he wouldn't get hit with a DUI. Unfortunately, after so much time had passed, and without catching him at the scene, there'd be no way to prove it even if we found him that night. The cop told the mom to have her son (age 22) call the station before the weekend was out or this would turn into more than just making sure the property owner got paid for the damages.

The poor woman had been planning to turn the car over to her son so it would be his responsibility, but as of the accident it was still in her name and under her insurance. And not only that, but it was probably totaled.

Takeaways and Tidbits

  • Your attitude when pulled over or questioned by a police officer has a huge effect on the outcome. Be respectful and you won’t get slammed.
  • Cops won’t assume you’re running if you don’t pull over right away, but if you’re looking for a safe place to stop, consider using your hazard lights to acknowledge that you’ve seen the cruiser.
  • When arresting someone, cops don’t have to read Miranda rights unless they plan to question him. Also, if not Mirandized and the person talks without prompting, all of that is admissible in court.
  • If you get in trouble often enough, you’ll get to know quite a few of the cops who patrol the area you live/get in trouble in. They often respond to a call in pairs or trios, and on any given shift, there are only seven or eight cops working that station’s district.
  • After the bars have last call (0130 in VA), everyone goes to IHOP. I'd hate to be a server on that shift.
  • If a cruiser pulls up next to you, but about half a car back, he’s probably running your tag.

The ride-along was a blast. If you get a chance to do one, I highly recommend it. Check with your local station. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.

Citizens Police Academy-week 7: gangs

Aside from terrorists, it seems that few things strike fear into our hearts like teenagers sporting “colors” and guns. Last week, after brief introductions to the FCPD’s Explorer and Cadet programs, and an overview of the School Resource Officers (cops in middle and high schools), a detective from the gang squad stopped by.

Here are my takeaways from the detective’s talk:

  • In general—at least in Fairfax County—most criminal activity is perpetrated on other gang members, especially the violent crimes.
    • Robbery/burglary is an exception
    • Graffiti is the most common gang-related crime in the county
  • There are two types of graffiti. That perpetrated by taggers, and that done by gangs.
    • Tagger graffiti is very artistic, often bubbly, and hard to read. It’s more about expression and the thrill than about marking territory or sending a message.
    • Gang graffiti is generally simple and legible, and is used for one of the following purposes:
      • Roll call: a list of gang members names (usually nicknames)
      • Identification of alliances: lets other gangs know that two or more gangs have formed an alliance
      • Declare war: show which gangs are fighting
      • Tribute: to pay tribute to a dead member(s) or to warn that someone’s marked for death
    • Detectives follow the gang graffiti closely to get insight on what’s going on in the gang world. They also photograph it for later reference and comparison.
  • Due to police awareness of tattoos, colors, hand signs, and gang paraphernalia, trends in all of these are constantly evolving. Lately detectives have noticed a reduction in the tattoos, especially those on the face/neck.
    • Gangs now post YouTube videos with catchy rap songs and dances, intended to help with recruitment.
    • Gang members often use FaceBook to keep in touch and recruit (and sometimes to get caught by the cops!)
  • Why do kids get involved?
    • To fill a void at home.
    • They grew up in a gang family and don’t know anything else.
      • Some of the photos he showed of babies and toddlers dressed in gang colors and throwing signs or holding guns were heartbreaking.
      • Siblings/parents in a gang serve as a role model.
    • Peer pressure
    • Status
    • Money
    • Drugs
    • Adrenaline rush
  • Gangs are everywhere, even the suburbs and smaller cities, though politicians often won’t acknowledge the problem until it gets out of hand. This is bad because that means they’re not putting up the resources to fight it either.
  • Proven methods for dealing with gangs include: partnerships with the Feds, deportation for illegals involved in gang activity, snitching (as mentioned before, most criminals will talk), laws that provide stiffer penalties for crimes committed as part of gang activity, gang-related training for cops and school administrators.

For more information on gangs, check out Robert Walker’s Gangs Or Us.

Citizens Police Academy-week 6: robbery & fraud

He got robbed! Oh wait, maybe just burgled. Do you know the difference? Burglary involves illegal entry, but not use of force or a threat against someone. Robbery is when force, threat, or intimidation is used, and includes extortion. Use of a firearm while committing a felony includes an additional charge and additional jail time.

In Fairfax County, the Robbery Squad investigates incidents involving firearms, injury, knives, or a commercial setting. Patrol officers handle the other cases. Here’s what I found most interesting about the different types of robbery cases.

  • Home invasion: this is basically abduction in your own house. Someone enters your home and restrains you (generally at gun- or knifepoint).
    • Ethnic groups who frequently keep large amounts of money in the home—due to lack of trust in banks or government, or for other cultural reasons–frequently fall prey to home invasion, usually by criminals within their community.
    • The detective who spoke to us has seen a rise in poker game robberies. Guys advertise on Facebook or Twitter that it’s poker night. Someone shows up asking to buy-in, and instead holds them up.
    • In the detective’s experience, home invasion victims always have some kind of connection to the robber, even if tenuous.
    • Some home invaders are looking for drugs instead of money (e.g. home of drug dealer, or home of someone with a prescribed narcotic that’s valuable on the street).
  • Extortion: obtaining something (usually money) through force or threats.
    • Often the criminal threatens to expose the victim’s “embarrassing habits/deeds” to the world. In the detective’s experience, about 50% of the victims actually did what the criminal threatened to expose. So, be careful the company you keep.
    • Extortion frequently goes unreported.
  • Bank robbery
    • At least in my county, bank robbery is on the decline.
    • According to the detective, in almost every case, the robber wants the money to pay for drugs. He could only think of two cases in 10 years on the squad where the robber just wanted the money, and one case where the guy did it for the thrill.
    • The average “take” in a teller-only robbery is about $3500.
    • Only about 10% of bank robberies are vault hits, but he couldn’t reveal the take on those, or on armored car robberies.
    • Generally, in the detective’s experience, homicides/shootings during a bank robbery are due to accidental trigger pull, rather than specific intent to harm.
    • Robbers often choose banks without glass at the teller counter because it’s easier to go over the counter to keep an eye on the teller.

In addition to the Robbery Squad, we had a visit from a fraud investigator. I learned a lot. Hopefully you already shred bank and utility statements and such before you recycle them, but this detective has a lot more recommendations.

  • Send your mail from a secure mailbox or from work, rather than your accessible mailbox. He calls the outgoing mail flag the “steal me” flag. Thieves will take your mail right out of your curbside box, hoping to find a check. They won’t “wash” the check, they’ll just take the bank account and routing numbers and use them to pay for things online using an ACH (automated clearing house) transaction.
  • Consider a PO box to receive mail. Fraudsters will collect your mail daily, looking for pre-approved credit applications. When the card comes, they’ll get it from your box. Sometimes they change the address for the new card.
    • But how do they activate the card, you ask? Well, there’s a site called spoofcard . com that allows them to set up caller ID to look like it’s coming from your phone number. It even let’s them change the gender of their voice. Scared yet?
    • Once they have the new account, they’ll change the mailing address, and even ask for a card to be issued in another person’s name. The companies are happy to comply.
  • Use online banking to avoid paper statements, and to check your transactions regularly so you can spot fraud early.
    • You have 60 days from the receipt of a statement to dispute a charge/withdrawal.
    • You must notify the banking institution within two days of discovering a fraudulent charge.
  • Don’t leave your wallet in the car at the gym, church, rec center, school, or park. Thieves troll these places, knowing people are likely to leave their wallet/purse in the console or glovebox.
  • I’ve said it before: never, ever, ever, ever wire money!!!!! If someone asks you to wire money, it’s probably fraud.
  • Beware the car buyer who pays with a certified check. And if it’s already made out and it’s for too much money, don’t give them any cash back! Wait until a weekday and go with them to the bank to get a new certified check. If they won’t do it, it’s probably a scam/bad check.
  • Cover the keypad when entering your PIN at the ATM. Always. Even if no one is around. This will protect you if the ATM has been compromised by ATM “skimmers”. The camera won’t catch the PIN and they won’t be able to use your card number to withdraw money. I was mortified to find out that several bank branches near my home are hit regularly by skimmers.
  • PayPal is risky unless working with reputable merchants. Same with any online transaction.
  • No legitimate bank or merchant will ever ask for more than the last four digits of your account or SSN, and should not ask for your PIN.
  • Don’t hang your purse over the back of your chair. Popular places for theft (usually of just one or two credit cards, rather than cash or your whole wallet) are busy restaurants like Outback and La Madeleine, old (non-stadium style) movie theaters, and any crowded place.
  • On a credit card, the only thing that matters is the magnetic stripe. Most merchants do not check to see if the number/name on the card matches what comes up when they swipe it (Lowe’s is a notable exception).
    • Thieves can use a “wedge”, a small, portable card reader to capture your card data. Maybe via that waiter who just walked away with your card. The wedge holds 4-500 cards' worth of data.
    • The thieves transfer that info to blank cards, or real credit cards, and use them to buy whatever they want.
  • Check your credit report every few months. You get one per bureau per year. Considering getting one from a different credit bureau every four months to catch fraudulent use of your identity before it gets out of hand. For free reports go to

Be safe!

Citizens Police Academy-week 5, part 2: narcotics squad

The drugs of choice may have changed over the years, but the demand for them, and the havoc that they wreak on people’s lives hasn’t. I mentioned in my last post that a narcotics officer also came and talked to my CPA class on Thursday evening. For someone who has done a fair amount of research on the drug trafficking, his spiel was fascinating.

These guys do a lot of undercover drug buys. They’ll usually make two or three buys from a dealer before they arrest him. It makes their case stronger by establishing that the sale wasn’t a one-off event. When they buy from a small-scale dealer, the intent is usually to try to get him to inform on the next person up in the chain. If you ever watch DEA—a great show—you'll see them “flipping” dealers frequently in order to get a bigger fish.

According to the narcotics officer, everybody snitches. Everybody. Unlike on TV, they’ll sell out their friend, brother, mother, girlfriend, wife, you name it. Everyone wants a deal when they get up in front of the judge.

One of the problems for an officer who's been undercover a long time is running into someone he’s arrested in the past. He lives in another county, partly because it’s more affordable, and partly to avoid being recognized.

A few years ago, he and his wife came into town to shop for furniture. They walked in the front door and the guy who greeted them was fresh out of a jail cell the officer had put him in a couple of years before. The officer and his wife walked out.

They went to another furniture store and found what they were looking for. He pulled their truck around back, and who’s loading the truck? Another guy he arrested. Hey, what’s with ex-cons and furniture stores, huh? He hightailed it back inside and had them rip up all of his financing paperwork (with his name, address, phone, everything) and ran to the ATM so he could pay cash.

At one point, someone threatened to kill him. The thug was able to get the officer’s address from a contact at the phone company! Now the officer has all his information blocked. His son got pulled over for speeding and had a difficult time explaining why the car came back as unregistered. The motor cop thought the kid had stolen the car. Poor guy.

Someone in class asked about women in the narcotics squad. Right now, there are only two out of the fifteen or so officers. He’d like more. Not only are they incredibly dedicated (in his experience so far), but they work in pairs, and a man is often less suspicious when accompanied by a woman on a drug buy.

Some key things about drugs:

  • The marijuana that’s out there today is significantly more potent than it was 10-15 years ago. It also goes for about $5000/pound. High quality stuff is greener, has fewer seeds/stems, and comes in a variety of colors. It’s branded much like other drugs, and people have their preferences. BC Bud, for example comes from Canada.
  • Marijuana is still dangerous.
    • Every druggy the cop has ever met started with marijuana. Not all pot users will move on to harder drugs, but hard drug users almost universally started with pot.
    • Just like any other drug, the users often resort to crime to pay for their habit.
  • One of the latest things is the synthetic marijuana (aka Spice, aka K2). It's not illegal in all states, but it's incredibly dangerous. Kids think it's safe because it's legal and sold as incense. These smokable herbal blends are coated with chemicals that mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, but often have unexpected side effects.
  • PCP is a horrible drug. Users on PCP don’t feel pain. This makes it nearly impossible for officers to arrest them without the use of a taser.
    • PCP is now being sprayed onto marijuana for a potent and dangerous mix.
    • Street-level dealers often “cut” the PCP with water and lighter fluid. Yuck!
    • PCP interferes with the sensory system to the degree that men have been known to light themselves on fire and laugh while they burn. Another man stood and fought off police officers while suffering from a compound leg fracture.
    • If you see someone running naked down the street, he’s probably on PCP. It makes them feel hot. They also have hallucinations.

As far as seized assets, like drugs and drug money, they often become evidence in a case. Once the case is done, the department will usually get a cut of the money to use for drug buys and equipment. At one point they even funded additional officers, and I mentioned on Sunday that seized assets were used to buy the laser the crime scene squad wanted to lift fingerprints off plastic.

Bottom line? Just say no. 🙂

Citizens Police Academy-week 5: crime scene squad

Narcotics and Crime Scene Investigation! My manuscript SLOW BURN featured a DEA agent hero, and I absolutely loved learning about that world, so listening to the narcotics officer was fascinating. If a bit scary.

However, I know all you really want to hear about is the forensics stuff. In Fairfax County, the crime scene squad is made up of sworn police officers. No straight-from-a-master’s-in-forensics newbies here. Ideally they have at least six years on the police force before moving to the CS squad.

The first year is all on-the-job training where they can only handle evidence under direct supervision. They also spend a lot of that first year taking classes or seminars when the budget allows. The second year, they can work a scene but are still under the supervision of an experienced CS officer.

The crime scene squad investigates all major crimes like murder, rape, assault, robbery, high-value burglary, police-involved shootings, and other death investigations (suicide, accident, suspicious death). The CS crew collects the evidence; the medical examiner determines the cause and manner of death.

Causes: shooting, strangling, stabbing, fall down the stairs, drug overdose, cancer, etc…

Manners: suicide, homicide, accidental, natural, undetermined/unclassified.

The county also trains patrol officers in CS techniques so they can handle the “lesser” crimes–like burglary–themselves. This supplemental group can also be called in when extra manpower is needed to work a large or complicated scene. And of course, they’re a ready-made group of future CS candidates.

Forensic photography is the bread and butter of CS. These guys are very skilled photographers with sophisticated equipment. Our officer even showed us a photo he took at night with no flash. It was clear as day. Every enhancement made to a photo is tracked and can be reproduced by someone else.


  • An “average” homocide requires 12-15 hours of initial work and 500-1000 photos, starting with the macro level and working in. Each piece of evidence is photographed with and without a ruler, and often from multiple angles.
  • Crime scene diagrams can really help a jury make sense of the scene and how the crime played out.
  • At a scene, if something’s out of place, it’s evidence.
  • Footwear impressions are very useful. Most criminals wear their most comfortable shoes and are unlikely to discard them after a crime. The wear pattern will be unique to that pair of shoes if they’re at least a few weeks old.
  • They really can match up tools to tool marks, and even a saw to the bone it cut through. (Yuck!)
  • Luminol only works in the absence of light (unlike on CSI where that wouldn’t be very interesting to watch). It does require an orange filter though. Bodily fluids will fluoresce, but so will a coffee stain. That’s where the lab techs come in.
  • Which is more definitive evidence? Fingerprints or DNA? The answer is fingerprints! Surprised? Here’s why:
    • DNA can very effectively exclude a person (as with the guys being released from jail based on DNA evidence), but it can’t inconclusively identify a suspect. The odds are small, but the source of the DNA might be someone else, even if there’s a match.
    • DNA is also very easy to contaminate with multiple samples. If five people put their hands on a doorknob, you might get a mixed mess with the DNA, but all you need is one clear fingerprint to positively match to a suspect.
    • Identical twins can have the same DNA, but they will not have the same fingerprints.
  • I’d thought that paper might be a difficult material from which to get fingerprints, but apparently it absorbs the lipids, thus making for excellent fingerprint recovery. Check fraudsters take note!
  • And if you’re going to commit a crime, don’t leave the latex gloves behind. They can pull the fingerprints and DNA from the inside of the gloves.
  • Plastic used to be a difficult surface to fingerprint, but no longer. With a chemical called Rhotamine G6 and a very expensive, very precise laser (532nm) they can lift fingerprints from a shopping bag or a dime bag. And in an ironic twist, this was paid for with seized assets (read: drug money) provided by the narcotics squad to help CS work narcotics cases.

Being that Fairfax County is close to the terrorist target also known as Washington, D.C., the forensics folks at FCPD have started IED (improvised explosive device) training. The explosives team (coming soon!) rigs up an IED to a stationary vehicle and detonates it. Then the crime scene squad has to collect as many bomb pieces as possible, try to reconstruct it, and look at other evidence (direction of blast, etc…) to determine what type of bomb it was.

So that’s week five in a very large nutshell. Questions?