Training the crime investigators of the future

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R.I. State Crime Laboratory at URI to add new dimension to investigative training by constructing crime scenes at the Union Fire District training tower, then setting them on fire to practice arson investigation

KINGSTON, R.I., March 7, 2012 – Since the early 1950s, the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island has been training law enforcement officers throughout the state in how to conduct criminal investigations. But the crime lab’s comprehensive training program is offering a new experience that the fans of popular TV crime dramas like CSI can only dream of.

Starting March 13, at the Union Fire District Training Center in South Kingstown, eight rooms will be constructed in a concrete fire tower. Each room will be a different “crime scene” for trainees to conduct investigations. When those investigations are completed, the rooms will be set on fire to become the perfect arson investigation settings for firefighters and police officers. “We are training the crime scene investigators of the future and this is a rare opportunity to construct different crime scenes exactly the way we want them,” said Dennis C. Hilliard, director of the crime lab and an adjunct professor of biomedical sciences at URI’s College of Pharmacy. “We are providing an experience that a lot of officers in small towns don’t get to have.”

From March 13 through March 15, crews will construct two bedrooms, two kitchens, two offices, and two living rooms at the concrete fire tower at 131 Asa Pond Road in South Kingstown, just off Curtis Corner Road. In addition to the officers in the URI training course, firefighters affiliated with the Union Fire District, the R.I. Department of Public Safety State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Rhode Island Chapter of the International Association for Arson Investigation (RI/IAAI) will be training at the site together on this effort. Members from each organization will assist in building the rooms. Furniture for the rooms will be provided by the Salvation Army of Providence, though the efforts of director of operations Frank D. McCauley.

On March 16 at 1 p.m., the 32 law enforcement officers in the URI/State Crime Laboratory training program will work in teams of four to investigate the eight scenes, identifying and documenting evidence using methods they have learned, keeping the scene and the evidence from being contaminated or spoiled. Putting into practice the training they’ve been experiencing since September, they will photograph the scene and evidence and sketch the overall scene.

They will collect evidence using proper packaging, such as tying down guns and knives inside cardboard boxes. The evidence will be taken back to the crime lab at URI to be processed, and the officers will complete the appropriate paperwork. They will focus on what Hilliard calls “the chain of custody,” making sure that all evidence from collection to the courtroom has been handled and documented properly. On March 20, the rooms will be set on fire. On March 22, the firefighters attending a RI/IAAI seminar will investigate and collect evidence related to cause and origin of the fire and arson investigations. On March 23, the law enforcement officers training with Hilliard will go through the fire sites to introduce them to the aspects of fire investigations by members of the state Fire Marshal’s Office.

The media is invited to view the different phases of the investigations at the fire tower. This exercise marks the culmination of an intense training program that started in September and requires a minimum commitment of six hours a week for each law enforcement officer enrolled in the URI course. Participants have studied dozens of areas related to crime scene investigation including: evidence collection and processing; digital and video photography; forensic biology and trace evidence; fingerprints; legal issues; firearms; toxicology; blood spatter; shooting reconstruction; and more. The officers in the URI/State Crime Laboratory training program will be tested on all aspects of what they’ve learned, including their experience at the concrete fire tower and they will present their testimony about the investigation at a mock trial. If they successfully complete the training, they will earn undergraduate credits from the University. “This training is beneficial to the criminal justice system,” said Hilliard, who has worked in the forensic field since 1980, and has testified in Rhode Island state and federal courts more than 100 times. “Law enforcement officers don’t decide guilt or innocence. You can be a really good investigator but if you can’t communicate the evidence to a jury,” he shrugged. “We have to explain why we did it and what it means.” The R.I. State Crime Laboratory offers a range of scientific services for all appropriate agencies investigating evidence related to federal, state, or local crimes. Hilliard and the crime lab played a key role in establishing URI’s Forensic Science Partnership, which has brought together top researchers at the University to focus on forensic science and run a highly regarded lecture series each semester. The partnership has helped the University attract millions in research funding, including the $5.15 million Center of Excellence in Explosives, Detection, Mitigation, Response, and Characterization established by URI Chemistry Professor Jimmie Oxley, an internationally renowned explosives and terrorism expert.

The Union Fire District has one of the top fire training facilities in the region, including a Cape Cod style, steel reinforced, concrete house and a steel reinforced concrete fire tower. The all-volunteer district has eight stations.

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R.I. State Crime Laboratory –

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