Integrity by Design
Written by Kristi Mayo   


Photo: Michael Robinson Photography

IN 2009, the publication of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, prompted a nationwide reevaluation of forensic practices and procedures. The NAS report recommended that all entities charged with handling evidence should be accredited. While the accreditation spotlight has focused on crime laboratories, some agencies are broadening the scope to include the crime scene investigation unit.

To Lab Director Gary Howell with the Johnson County (Kansas) Sheriff’s Office Criminalistics Laboratory, this focus makes perfect sense. The laboratory’s brand new, state-of-the-art facility that opened in March 2012 was designed from the ground up with quality assurance in mind. A key part of assuring quality, standards, and protocol was the decision to make the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO) Crime Scene Investigation Section an integrated part of the laboratory.

“A lot of crime scene units in the country are in separate divisions from the laboratories,” said Howell. “When you think about that, it doesn’t make any sense that the international protocols—all of the care we take with handling, marking, collecting, and preserving evidence—should begin at the front door of the crime laboratory. You need to be using those kinds of procedures and protocols as soon as the evidence is detected: at the crime scene.”

In 2010, when the JCSO Criminalistics Laboratory received its ISO 17025 accreditation with the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB), the Crime Scene Investigation Section was included for the first time.

The prospects involved with the new job motivated Crime Scene Supervisor Ryan Rezzelle to come to work at the JCSO in 2008. Not only would he be part of preparing the crime scene unit for ISO accreditation, but he would also be part of the planning process for the new crime laboratory facility.

“This has been a dream as a crime scene investigator,” said Rezzelle. “We have basically done things in four years that normally you might hope to do over the course of a career.”

Building a new crime scene investigation section from scratch—right down to specifying equipment, instruments, and architectural details—sounds like the fun part of Rezzelle’s job. Meanwhile, some people might cringe at the prospect of preparing a unit for ISO accreditation. Rezzelle disagrees with that perception.

“I think that accreditation is misunderstood by many in the sense that it’s a scary, dirty word that everyone is afraid of,” said Rezzelle. “The bottom line is that we built a set of sound protocols that lead to sound forensic investigative work being done at the crime scene.”

Design for Present and Future Needs

Photo: Michael Robinson Photography

When the planning process for the new Criminalistics Laboratory began, members of each section housed there—trace evidence, toxicology, DNA, drug chemistry, latent prints, firearms and toolmarks, digital forensics, and crime scene investigation—were given the opportunity to provide input on the design.

“Each laboratory here has its own particular environment—its own needs in lighting, exhaust, air pressures… So a lot of planning went into assuring that what we got was a good design,” said Howell.

The end results were unique spaces with features that address the specific functions of each section. Additionally, workspaces are configurable, and can be easily expanded to meet the projected needs of the laboratory for up to 15 years.

Green Lighting

The overall design of the laboratory facility incorporates 2010 LEED Platinum certification standards—the highest level of certification offered by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Program. This standard limits energy expenditure devoted to lighting to just 1.4 watts per square foot. To meet this challenge, the building utilizes natural light throughout, including benchtop-to-ceiling windows in all of the laboratory spaces that incorporated a special, high-efficiency coating on their exteriors; solar pumps; and a concerted effort by architects to maximize light through design, shading, and orientation throughout all of the seasons. The high-tech lighting system automatically dims the lights as sunlight fills the workspaces.

Additional consideration for lighting was given to the facility’s nine specially equipped exam rooms. These rooms feature large windows to allow in natural light, as well as observation without risk of cross-contamination or chain-of-custody issues. The windows are equipped with blackout shades that bring the room to almost complete darkness when using luminol or alternate light sources, for example.

“My scientists are good, but they can’t do their work in the dark… unless they want it dark,” said Howell. “If you want it dark, we can get it very, very dark. If you want it bright, we can get it very, very bright.”

Large, reconfigurable work surfaces in the exam rooms sit below specially designed LED light arrays that produce up to 400 footcandles of nearly shadowless illumination on the exam tables. Each exam room can also be locked by individual examiners using a PIN and keypad so they can securely store evidence and maintain it in their custody.

Isolation Room

One of the features specific to the crime scene investigation section is the isolation room. The large space features the same configurable, stainless steel cabinets, hood, and benchtop; natural lighting; and LED light arrays as the exam rooms located elsewhere in the laboratory. What sets it apart from the others is the drain in the floor, the power-washer in the corner, and its separate air supply and ventilation system. The design is a nod to the reality of crime scene investigation: often, the evidence brought in from the field smells really bad.

“In past laboratories that I worked in, the crime scene unit would bring in some putrefied materials—like bedding or the back seats of cars—and the whole laboratory would reek while we were processing them,” said Howell.

Rezzelle added that the isolation room is an asset to the entire laboratory. “We put the isolation room in the crime scene section because we are the ones that deal with the stink the most often,” he said. “But occasionally, for example, someone in our trace section may get a putrefied article of clothing—and we will put them in touch with the isolation room.”

Mock Crime Scene Room

“I have something of a vivid imagination,” said Rezzelle regarding the planning process for the new crime scene investigation section at the JCSO Criminalistics Laboratory. One result of that imagination is the mock crime scene room. Two walls of the space are entirely glass (“…like a fishbowl,” explained Rezzelle). The other two walls are coated with a heavy-duty, washable paint. The floor features a drain, and a power washer can be brought in through a side door from the adjacent vehicle-processing bay. The goal of the design: “I wanted to be able to throw buckets of blood—amounts comparable to what you would find at a crime scene—and spray it all down when I was done,” said Rezzelle. He noted that cleanup of “fresh” biological materials such as blood in the mock crime scene room (and in other areas of the facility equipped with floor drains, such as the garage) involves a standard process of air-drying, bleaching, and rinsing. Any solid or partially solid decomposition waste—as may be found anywhere throughout the lab, but particularly in the CSI section—is placed into biohazard bags.

The full-glass walls allow observers to see the “bloodshed” without being directly exposed to potential biological hazards. In addition to blood-spatter experiments and recreations, any mock crime scene can be set up in the room, with doors large enough to bring in full-sized furniture, for example.

“It’s really about having that space that we can get dirty, and that we can configure however we want to,” added Rezzelle. “That was quite a phenomenal project.”

Vehicle Processing Facility

Photo: Michael Robinson Photography

Just off the mock crime scene room is the crime scene section’s vehicle processing facility. The space includes three vehicle bays. A removable wall provides enough room to pull in a large truck if necessary. Four lifts, capable of lifting 18,000 lbs. each, can be independently placed under the vehicle and then lifted in unison—a feature that is easier and safer than a swing-arm lift for the crime scene personnel to use, according to Rezzelle. The lifts can also be wheeled completely off the floor if necessary to create more space for processing evidence.

Photography Room

Another feature built into the new crime scene section is a room set up as a dedicated photography studio. An overhead track system allows for fully configurable lighting as well as overhead photography.

“It was important to us to have appropriate, studio-photography lighting so that we could get well-composed, well-lit shots of different evidence,” said Rezzelle. “At the old laboratory, we had a table set up in the middle of a garage bay where we would use ladders and rig stand lights into all sorts of interesting configurations. Now, we have a space built to do exactly what we need it to do.”

Settling In

For personnel in all sections of the laboratory, the move to this new facility has provided the ability to spread out, settle in, and reach for new ways to do their work more efficiently and effectively.

“I keep hearing superlatives every day—people saying it makes a big difference on how they can examine and preserve the evidence,” said Howell.

Rezzelle said this reaction has been particularly true in the crime scene section. He pointed to the mock crime scene room and isolation room as examples of careful planning and creative thinking that truly work.

“Can you survive without these things? Yes, you can. We did for years. Does it assist with a smooth workflow? Yes, it does,” said Rezzelle. “We built that entire space thinking about what problems we have had through time.

“That’s really what I think building a new crime lab is about: identifying processes that you employ and then figuring out a means for streamlining those processes.”

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Item of Interest

The language barrier between English-speaking investigators and Spanish-speaking witnesses is a growing problem. (Updated 28 February 2011)