Friday, June 27, 2008

Death Study on Tasers

Since I've written about tasers, see the blog: Don't Tase Me, Bro, I have tried to keep up. I just received a notification from the National Institute of Justice and thought I should make it available to round out the current information. So I cut-and-paste it here verbatim for your perusal:

NIJ In-Custody Death Study: The Impact of Use of Conducted Energy Devices

An expert panel of medical professionals found no conclusive evidence of a high risk of death or serious injury from the direct effects of Conducted Energy Devices (CEDs), such as Tasers.

The panel is studying deaths related to the use of CEDs. In an interim report, the panel said that law enforcement agencies need not stop using CEDs, but cautioned that they should be used reasonably and only after proper training.

Law enforcement agencies that use CEDs report reduced injuries to officers and suspects alike. However, deaths and serious injuries of suspects also occur.

Learn more about how the study is being conducted

Read the full text of the panel's interim report Deaths Following Electro-Muscular Disruption (pdf, 21 pages)

Repeated Use is Risky

Many of the deaths that followed a CED discharge took place when it was used repeatedly or continuously. The medical risks involved in repeated or continuous CED discharges are unknown. Thus, the expert medical panel urges caution in using multiple activations.

Certain Populations are More Vulnerable

The panel's interim report said the risk of a death or serious injury is low when police use CEDs against healthy adults. Certain groups may be at much higher risk of injury or death from CEDs. These groups include *children, the elderly, pregnant women, people who have heart disease* and those who show signs of "*excited delirium*." Police officers should avoid the use of CEDs against these populations unless the situation excludes other choices.

The panel also noted a risk of sudden death when suspects are in an agitated and combative state that is sometimes called "excited delirium." Police officers should treat this as a medical emergency. People in this state often exhibit combativeness and have elevated body temperatures. In these cases, a danger of sudden death exists whether police officers use a CED or not. The panel recommended that emergency medical personnel should provide cooling, sedation and hydration as soon as possible.

The Justice Department is aware of more than 300 cases of Americans dying after exposure to CEDs. Some were normal, healthy adults. Others had medical conditions such as heart disease, mental illness or chemical dependencies. Several manufacturers sell CEDs to American law
enforcement agencies. However, TASER International of Scottsdale, Ariz., is, by far, the leading supplier. About 12,000 (out of some 18,000) American law enforcement agencies use CEDs. More than 260,000 CEDs are in use by American law enforcement and corrections agencies.

Police officers should arrange for suitable medical care for people who suffer injuries. This is especially important when darts penetrate vulnerable areas of the head, face, neck, genitals or female breast areas, or in case of injury from falls or burns.

The panel expects to release a final report in 2009.

Information for law enforcement agencies about a variety of less-lethal alternatives to firearms is available at

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Fingerprints and Talking Bones

by Andrea Campbell

I got interested in forensic science in the late ‘80s, before there were crime dramas on television that emphasized science. I came into this field through the back door, that is to say, in an unlikely way. I started by studying graphology with a Catholic priest. Father Tony had a degree in psychology and used handwriting analysis in his work with prison inmates, at a private girl’s school, and for marriage counseling.

Now to tell you the truth, many questioned document examiners (QDE) consider graphology to be like reading a horoscope, despite the fact that numerous ideas in the discipline overlap with what they do. No matter, for my studies introduced me to the American College of Forensic Examiners where I took another course. I soon joined—my member number is 471 and today I think they have over 16,000 members.

The best part about joining a professional organization is access. At one of their conferences—Coronado Island in San Diego, I signed up for a workshop with John Douglas, FBI Special Agent (ret.), and one of the authors of the behavioral science manual (and a pioneer in the Behavioral Science Unit as it was first called: BSU, ha!). I had thought it would be very cool to find perpetrators of heinous crimes by becoming a behavioral profiler. For his presentation John brought in photographs of crime scenes he had worked and there were graphics of eviscerations, impaling, and the mutilation of breasts and other organs. Wake-up call! I thought: Why would I want to have to walk through that? And to get into the perpetrator’s head besides—crazy work? So I brainstormed about a study that would enable me to remain “in the loop,” along with something that I could actually stomach.

While I was thinking, I got a degree in criminal justice and, after a short while decided that forensic art would be my bailiwick. Since I have a tendency to make the effort, I found the best forensic sculptor in the world and the pioneer of the technique of three-dimensional facial reconstruction, Betty Pat. Gatliff. Ms. Gatliff completed her first reconstruction in 1967. I took classes with Betty Pat. at the Cleveland Institute of Art because those are my old stomping grounds.

Soon after, I studied comprehensive composite art with Karen T. Taylor. Karen had been with the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin for many years, and has been featured on “America’s Most Wanted.” She also taught at the FBI Academy and has successfully been involved in—and resolved—many cases. Karen is also the author of the definitive book about these disciplines, Forensic Art and Illustration.

I, too, have written many books about forensic science and criminal law but here, in this blog, we’re going to talk about my current obsession: the difference between TV crime drama and reality.

Many people feel they have become educated by watching the CSI-type procedural television shows and are proud to be Armchair Detectives. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about being interested in this area, but it’s effects are filtering down to the criminal justice system by way of the jury pool. As a consequence of this interest, many jurors today are expecting more science, more definitive results, and want techniques that they’ve seen on TV demonstrated in court. Trouble is, much of what is shown on TV is what I lovingly call: “crapology” or “infotainment.”

Over the years I have continued to attend many forensic science training conferences and have knowledge of, or experience with, a lot of really cool things from ammunition testing and wound ballistics to major case prints and more. I’m hoping my knowledge and background may benefit your interests—providing you like all things regarding forensic science and criminal law.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Women in Crime Ink Now Available!

Announcing a unique crime blog debuting this March:


Profiling the nation's most intriguing criminals . . . interviewing killers, survivors, witnesses, and lawyers . . . arresting suspects . . . prosecuting and locking up serial and sexual killers . . . safeguarding civil liberties and urging government accountability . . . recreating faces on skulls to help identify victims and solve cases . . . witnessing executions on Texas Death Row . . . covering the nation's top crime stories . . . and uncovering truth in the face of jail time and death threats.

These are the daily tasks of the women who make up Women in Crime Ink (WCI). Beginning March 10, they will share their day-to-day adventures and behind-the-scenes stories that are always stranger than fiction. WCI will also feature interviews as well as book and film reviews. Expect guest contributor blogs from those impacted by crime and a "Mystery Man" column, written by men in the crime biz. Additionally, WCI will host live chats with selected crime authors promoting their books.

Women in Crime Ink has assembled an impressive lineup of award-winning true-crime authors, print and broadcast journalists, crime novelists, a producer for CBS News, television personalities, and criminal justice professionals—including a forensic artist, a criminal profiler, a murder prosecutor, a police officer, a criminal defense attorney, a sex-crimes prosecutor, and a private investigator. From the West Coast to the Eastern Seaboard, they have crime covered. Meet the women of Women in Crime Ink:

PAT BROWN is a nationally renowned Criminal Profiler and author of Killing for Sport.

ANDREA CAMPBELL is a forensic artist who writes books about forensic science and law.

KATHRYN CASEY is a true-crime author whose first Texas Ranger novel debuts this summer.

TINA DIRMANN is a crime and entertainment reporter, a commentator, and a true-crime author.

STACY DITTRICH is a police officer and a crime novelist who's worked numerous murder cases.

DIANE FANNING is the Edgar-nominated author of 7 true crime books and 1 mystery novel.

JENNA JACKSON is a producer for 48 Hours whose first true-crime book was recently released.

VANESSA LEGGETT is a writer jailed by the Justice Dept. for protecting sources for a book.

MICHELE MCPHEE is a best-selling true-crime author and host of a talk-radio show.

DONNA PENDERGAST is a prosecutor who put away the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history.

ROBIN SAX is a deputy district attorney, a criminal law professor, a legal analyst and an author.

KATHERINE SCARDINO is an attorney who won Texas' first capital murder acquittal. in 25 years.

DONNA WEAVER is a P.I. whose career began with her husband's disappearance and murder.

For the real story on crime and media issues, bookmark

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Don’t Tase Me, Bro!

The latest take-down weapon in a sea of bad behavior: the TASER.

I’m setting aside forensic science today because ever since I saw the University of Florida campus police struggle with Andrew Meyer, I’ve wanted to know about Tasers. Meyer was actually made famous by a YouTube video when his belligerent behavior directed at Senator John Kerry—who had come to speak at the school—got him Tased. And, of course, tased became a verb and money was made on t-shirts and baby bibs with the sad refrain, “Don’t Tase me, bro!”

If you watch the video and listen to the screams, you will be affected. But, how? Do you think, like the ACLU and Amnesty International, that you should side with Meyer, or do you think that police are justified in Taser use?

Now I don’t have 3 or 4-thousand words to debate the subject here, but I will tell you very briefly some of what I found out. Also, there will be a series of links at the end of this article so you can go check it out for yourself; I’ve just saved you some homework.


• TASER stands for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle, from the Tom Swift series of children's novels written (circa 20th c.); I guess Tom Swift had an electric rifle.
• Tasers, a brand name, are made by an Arizona-based company and they are referred to in the industry as a CED—conductive energy device.
• The latest figure I could find suggests that 11,000 law enforcement, correctional and military organizations, in 44 countries, use its devices

The best reason for using this weapon, and police have been looking for one for centuries, is that criminals return fire. The second best reason is a more modern concept and is that, violent criminals are often hopped up on drugs or stimulants. The usual methodology was to beat, spray, or twist the perpetrator into submission using pepper spray, clubbing, or joint distortion. But since many illegal drugs are painkillers, those former engines of despair don’t always work.

How does a Taser work?

I’m going to quote an article written by Mark W. Kroll, a biomedical engineer because he’s the expert and why rephrase it?

“When you pull the trigger of a Taser gun, a blast of compressed nitrogen launches its two barbed darts at 55 meters per second, less than a fifth the speed of a bullet from a typical pistol. Each projectile, which weighs 1.6 grams, has a 9-millimeter-long tip to penetrate clothing and the insulating outer layer of skin. Two whisper-thin wires trail behind for up to 9 meters, forming an electrical connection to the gun.”

The result is an instant loss of the attackers neuromuscular control and any ability to perform coordinated action or remove the probes. In other words, mine, “It shocks the bejeezus out of him,” Now if you want the full spectrum of biomedical details, I highly recommend the aforementioned link.

Police restraint
I found a statistic that claims about 670 people die each year under incidents of arrest and restraint. Police are obviously convinced that Tasers will make the target feel dazed but will not affect death. (Remember this is to prevent shooting the suspect.) So, I asked my friend, John Brooks, a crime scene investigator with the Fayetteville Police Department, if he had experience with the Taser. John responded that he’d never used one on anybody but he had been tased before and it was indescribable pain but he also said, “when it’s over, it’s over.”

That’s good enough for me.

*Note: I just heard from Mark W. Kroll, PhD; see the specifics—

Here is the link for the 700 arrest-related deaths per year.

Mark W. Kroll, PhD, FACC, FHRS
Mark Kroll & Associates, LLC
Box 23, Crystal Bay, MN 55323
Adj. Full Prof. Biomedical Engineering
California Polytechnic University
Adj. Full Prof. Biomedical Engineering
University of Minnesota
* * *

Thank you to Sandra Upson with IEEE Spectrum Magazine. (selling smaller versions for wider use—metallic pink, electric blue, and titanium silver)

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Sneak Peak at Spring Training

One of the benefits of belonging to a professional science organization is the ability to attend conferences. I can’t always make the national conventions but there is one I go to every year without fail. Our regional division of the International Association for Identification puts on a spring training presentation and workshop for its Arkansas forensic science and law enforcement members.

I thought you might like an honorary pass for a sneak peak into what we do at a smaller division conference. First of all, why is it important to have these meetings and better still, to attend regularly? I think it’s insightful to establish relationships and camaraderie with other criminal justice co-workers, even if they are not in the same department. For example, law enforcement officers often bring evidence to the crime lab, but it’s also essential that they learn how to process and package the artifacts, as well as to understand what is done with the evidence and how best to prepare it.

Another good reason to meet with colleagues in a professional setting is that so much forensic science crime scene information is presented on TV today, wrapped up in crime drama, that criminal are also watching these programs and are students soaking up tips on how to improve their trade. Police often tell me they see evidence of clean up at crime scenes and there are other instances of further education. It just makes sense that workers in the criminal justice system need to stay current with technology and techniques to continually improve skills and equipment. Classes on new tools and methods are a large part of our training programs and become our hedge against the free criminal information that is disbursed.

I won’t be able to tell you about all the sessions that were available, but a few of the topics discussed at our training conference in Little Rock were: the basics of fingerprint analysis and learning how to do it hands-on—with a magnifying glass, ten print cards and samples for a quiz (I got an “A”)! behavioral profiling of serial rapists, on scene interpretation of physical evidence, about testifying in court, a double homicide case and many other topics.

One session I’d like to tell you about was both informative and fun. We often have vendors, independent businesses that bring new tools or machines in for demonstration just as a sales representative would exhibit their new line at a conference. This particular product was brought in from Arrowhead Forensics and it’s called a Coherent TracER™.

You know how on television the CSIs are always use alternative light to look for traces of blood, semen or body fluids? Well, this Tracer is a battery-powered, and portable forensic laser system specifically designed for the rigors of modern criminology and forensics. A system. It can be used to locate fingerprints, fibers, body fluids, bone fragments, tooth chips, narcotics’ residue, and a variety of other types of trace evidence, even in high ambient light.

We got the opportunity to examine artifacts in a dimly lit hotel room and it works beautifully, the most effective of all the lights currently used. And just to show that we are not without a sense of humor. We examined the bedding, the walls and the bathroom under this light. I’m here to tell you that in the future when you travel, take your own pillow, sheets, and wipes to clean the bathroom.

Thanks for the read.

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.