Friday, August 31, 2007

Staying Ahead of the Criminals

If you type “Experts Blame Cop Shows for Educating Criminals” into your favorite search engine, you’ll come up with the original article, and a lot of blog commentary. It’s a popular subject. Just to paraphrase, the article is about a killer who used bleach to clean up a crime scene. And the senior criminalist from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said that bleach use was becoming all too common in his opinion. Another statement was from a northeast Ohio prosecutor, who claimed that a man went to great lengths in a double homicide to clean up his crime by using bleach to wash up, lining the interior of his car with blankets, and burning DNA evidence. He tripped up though when it came time to dispose of a crowbar, tossing it onto to a frozen lake.

I located another story about gang members in South Africa, who used their camera phones for finding victims. Apparently they would take pictures of bank customers who had withdrawn large sums of money. A gang member outside would stake the person and eventually rob them. Police officials there, want to ban cell phones in banks.

Since I write about crime and forensic science, I have wondered about this question myself? Am I, too, providing information to help criminals?

I don’t know that there is a definitive answer. I mean, if we’re talking about drug-related crimes committed by stoners, probably not. But I’ve often heard it said that most information about how to “best the government” goes on in our very own jails and prisons. I’m told that inmates share information and even teach techniques and ideas to anyone who will listen. So how does this play out in real life? I can’t say and I don’t know of any reliable studies that could even be performed because it is the very definition of underground information.

Thankfully, a lot of the gizmos and crime scene techniques that are shown on television come from the fruitful imagination of the writers. Most of my friends and colleagues in law enforcement and forensic science claim they don’t watch the CSI-type shows because they cannot suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy them. And, to them, crime is not entertainment but tragedies they must deal with every day.

I think the solution to staying on the cutting edge is on-going all the time in the form of research and technology. There are rewards and benefits for companies that launch crime-prevention and crime-busting aids. Just recently USA TODAY ran a piece about a new device that the Homeland Security Department would like to issue to its federal agents.

It looks like a flashlight and emits a powerful beam of light that temporarily blinds anyone who looks into it. A hefty $1 million dollars of testing money is going into the LED (light-emiting diode) Incapacitator. And they have volunteers lined up at Pennsylvania State University’s Institute of Non-Lethal Defense Technologies. (“So, what did you do today, honey?” “Well, I had my eyes burned up, my brains scrambled and got sickened by light pulses and colors!”)

The main thing that law enforcement looks for in a device, believe it or not, are tools that give authorities enough time to tackle subjects and restrain them, while sparing the lives of innocents nearby. They need tools to disorient and stop perpetrators, while preserving life. No small task.

I, personally, love reading about the new devices and think this one is especially interesting. The problem will become however, how to keep them out of the hands of the black market. Once they are mass-produced and come down in costs, then you’re on the road again, looking for more tricks.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Name That Crime Scene Problem

Sorry I haven't been around weekly. It goes like this: writers have a lot of conferences in the spring. I went to a mystery writers conference (with a crime scene walk-thru that was great); I was at a forensic science training conference; then the Romantic Times Book Lovers Convention in Houston (that was wild!); and, finally, a novel writing boot camp experience outside of Indianapolis (a wicked ten-hour drive).

Well, after all that, summer showed up. And summer is the time that authors create books. I'm making an E-book and CD of Detective Notebook: Crime Scene Science (for kids aged 10 and up, very cool, with activities); working on a monkey novella with terrific real-life graphics, and I need to get back to that mystery (it's been back-burnered too long).

Anyway, as a way of apology, I am going to post a drawing I did.

What Happened?

The coroner is having a hard time establishing the time of death. Look at the crime scene and figure out why. Leave your answer in the comments box.