Interview: Donna Kelley

An exclusive Evidence Technology Magazine interview with
Donna Kelley
donna kelley national forensic academy law enforcement innovation center university of tennessee crime scene investigation evidence technology magazine

Program Manager of the National Forensic Academy (NFA),
Law Enforcement Innovation Center (LEIC), University of Tennessee

This interview was conducted for Evidence Technology Magazine by R. Sue Salem, PhD, Forensic Chemical Science Coordinator, Chemistry Department, Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas.

The National Forensic Academy, based at the University of Tennessee in Oak Ridge, Tenn. is an intensive ten-week training program that is designed to meet the needs of law enforcement agencies in areas of evidence identification, collection, and preservation. The in-residence program covers a full gamut of forensic topics, from bloodstain pattern analysis to DNA, from fire investigation to death investigation, and from trace evidence to forensic anthropology. It includes 400 hours of training per session: 170 hours of in-class work and 230 hours of field practicum. The program is funded in part by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. When Evidence Technology phoned to speak to Kelley in early January 2013, her passion for forensic training became obvious immediately. We asked her about the process of inheriting such an established and well-known program.

KELLEY: It’s funny—I have been here about two and a half years, and this program was here long before me, but it feels like it’s mine now. I really have very little to do with the Anthropology Research Center started by Dr. William Bass; but when I leave here today, I’ll go out and bury bones… animal bones.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: We put our own mark on what we take over from somebody else, don’t you think?

KELLEY: Exactly, yes. Of course, we try to improve it, and we do: during every session of the NFA, we find a better way to do something. We make changes or upgrades, or we have a new class or a new instructor. Our organization’s name is the “Law Enforcement Innovation Center”, so we try to live up to our name.

donna kelley national forensic academy law enforcement innovation center university of tennessee crime scene investigation evidence technology magazine students processing latent prints body fuming
NFA students are shown here processing latent prints from a body.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Let’s talk about the history.

KELLEY: LEIC was created in 1997, but around 1999, the chief of the Knoxville Police Department and the University of Tennessee’s Institute for Public Service got together and said, “There are some big gaps in training for law enforcement, and one of the big ones is crime scene investigation. What can we do to address those gaps?” So, they called in professionals from the southeastern United States, and they sketched out the program: what the investigators need, what training is available, and what is not available. And that is where the NFA got started. They secured federal and state grant moneys, and that was the beginning of the planning session. When they got down to the nuts and bolts, they pulled people from all over the country to make sure that what they were developing was what everybody needed, not just those in our area.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Was Dr. William Bass a part of the development of NFA?

KELLEY: Oh, yes, and he still teaches for us. He is the most passionate man about the program that I have ever seen. He is 84 years old, and still comes in to teach. The first day we have a working lunch, and he gives a short talk. During our anthropology week, he teaches half a day. In our next session, starting at the end of this month, he will teach a whole day doing some of the field work, which he just loves! He was one of the main people to help get the NFA started, along with the Knoxville Police Department chief. The first academy was in 2001.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Where was the academy held initially?

KELLEY: In the beginning, students traveled from site to site as different facilities were required. The Knoxville Police Department rented space, and training began there. Students then moved to Nashville for autopsy and death investigation, then back to Knoxville. Then, in 2008, the University of Tennessee said, “What do you folks need?” And so now we have a 7,000 sq. ft. facility that has an interactive classroom, a fully equipped laboratory, a photography lab, and a specially designed “clean room” where students learn bloodstain analysis and whatever else requires a clean room. This new facility is probably the biggest thing to happen to the program since its inception. With this improvement we can stay local. We don’t need to pack and unpack, and students don’t need to travel during the ten-week program. Bottom line: We gained a lot more instructional time.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Let’s talk a little bit about the instruction and the instructors.

KELLEY: We at the LEIC are the planners for the NFA. Our instructors are all working in the field and have full-time jobs, so it takes some juggling to get all of them here at the appropriate time for the curriculum. For the students, we organize the housing contracts. The students live in fully-furnished two-bedroom apartments for the ten weeks—really nice apartments! We also have to meet the state standards and the training commission standards for officers. Logistics, I guess, is mainly what we do, but then we also need to stay on top of the technology.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: And that’s a big job these days!

KELLEY: We rely a lot on our subject-matter experts—our instructors. In 2009, we did a validation study and brought in a whole group of 20 or 30 people and went over the curriculum. We asked, “What are the learning objectives for each class? Are they still valid or do we need to change them?” Based on the results of the study, we made some changes.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What kinds of needed modifications did the validation study identify?

KELLEY: First, we used to have two days of shooting-scene reconstruction. Of course, we get evaluations from the students after each module. One thing that students and instructors said was, “We need more of this, because these are the types of crimes we investigate the most.” So, we went back and looked at that, and now they have a whole week of shooting-scene reconstruction. Also, it helps them meet another level of certification requirements for the International Association for Identification (IAI).

donna kelley national forensic academy law enforcement innovation center university of tennessee crime scene investigation evidence technology magazine bloodstain pattern analysis student
Bloodstain pattern analysis is practiced by students in the NFA lab.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: For which IAI certifications does the academy training prepare the students?

KELLEY: Our training helps students prepare for all the levels of certification. When the students come, we give them the IAI application for certification—if they want to apply. It is a perfect opportunity because they’re here for ten weeks. We have the library for them and the recommended study material. They can form study groups. It is a good time to get the IAI certification if they are interested in it. Usually we will have about half the class that will take one of the levels. A proctor comes in and proctors the test for them toward the end of the ten weeks. It is a little extra to take back to their agency, where they can say, “Hey, look, I got certification through IAI.”

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Overall, the training program sounds quite intense and quite expensive. Is financial aid provided for the students?

KELLEY: Well, it’s a match. We have a grant through the Bureau of Justice Assistance that pays for almost half of what it costs to deliver the program. And then the student’s agency will pay for the remaining amount. For an individual, the cost is $8,000. But if an agency sends two students to the same session, the fee goes down to $5,500 per student. If the student commutes and does not require housing, the cost is $4,500.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What kind of demand do you have for the academy?

KELLEY: We only do two sessions a year, and we have a wait list, maybe a year out. So when someone finally gets here, they have waited, and they want to be here. We have never had any problem with the work ethic, which is good, because we may start at 8 a.m. and end at 8 p.m.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What do you think draws students to the academy?

KELLEY: I think one of the best parts of the academy is our lineup of instructors—we call them our subject matter experts. They come in from all over the country. When the classes are over, that doesn’t mean they are finished. They will meet with each other and discuss cases. One time we had a case involving a person in Texas and Tennessee: One state had a missing person, and the other state had an unidentified body. And because the two experts from Texas and Tennessee got to talking, they solved the mystery in two states. They never found, as far as I know, who killed the person, but one state’s missing person turned up as the other state’s unidentified body—which was subsequently identified.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: So these are instructors who are still very much immersed in the “real world” of law enforcement and forensic science.

KELLEY: Right. And one of the best things our instructors do for the students is that after the academy is over, the instructors still make themselves available to the students. The networking that comes from academy participation is amazing. We encourage the instructors to share contact information with their students. And they tell us former academy students contact them all the time with problems they haven’t been able to solve. Once in a while a student will call us: “I have misplaced Capt. X’s contact info. And I need his help on a case. Can you help me?” No problem. We provide the contact info, the student will be able to reach the instructor… Problem solved.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Oh, that’s huge—that the instructors are willing to communicate with their former students—because we know these people are really busy.

KELLEY: We don’t tell the instructors that they must be available to their students from now on. It has just developed over the years. We try to pick instructors for their expertise and how current they are in their subject matter, but somehow we still get the people who are “devoted to the cause,” so to speak. The first thing instructors tell students is, “Here’s my number. Here’s how to reach me—whenever you have a problem that I can help with.”

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What other networking opportunities are available through the NFA?

KELLEY: We have a symposium every other year—a “retrainer,” of sorts. Federal grants are difficult to come by right now, so this year we had to charge a registration fee, but we still had more than 100 people come. The networking was amazing. You would see people standing in the halls talking about cases they had, what they had done, asking, “Did you try this?” And, of course, we try to get the newest technology to our graduates, and the symposium helps with that.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What is the timing on the symposium and the academies?

KELLEY: The symposium is every other year, and the academy is twice a year. Before my time here, they did three academies a year, and I don’t know how they managed to do that! Generally, we start an academy in March and graduate in May. We try to pick a timeframe when you have the least number of holidays. The one in the fall starts in September and graduates in November.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: And the academy is just for those working in the field?

KELLEY: Yes. We have had a few government contractors come through, and we have had some medical examiner investigators. It’s different every time: we may have, for instance, a detective and a crime scene technician in the same academy. We usually have a pretty good mix. Also, state and local agencies—even military agencies, from time to time—are represented. In addition, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation sends all their investigators to us, as does the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The Texas Rangers have been here. Anchorage, Alaska, has sent us a lot of their people. The local agencies come, of course, because they can do the commuter rate, so it is more feasible for them. At times, some people from the smaller towns and agencies have gone to the local citizens who raised the money to send them to the academy.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: That’s amazing that the citizens in small towns would feel passionate enough about their local law enforcement that they would donate their time to raise money for this purpose.

KELLEY: That’s what we need more of in this country. Actually, some of our benefactors—Patricia Cornwell, for instance—have donated scholarships for people to come to the academy.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: How is the academy different from other forensic training courses? Does it have something to do with the instructors you use?

KELLEY: I think so: I think our instructors are the element that makes our academy unique. They just have such a “buy in”, and most people in the forensic field are very passionate. For example, the Texas Rangers come and teach the class on mapping. That’s a very dry subject. But they make it interesting. They teach what the students need to learn, and, in turn, the students want to learn.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Is hands-on instruction a big part of the academy?

KELLEY: Yes. We really stress that we don’t want the academy to be “just a classroom.” We want the instructors to teach it. We want them to demonstrate it. And we want the students to do it. Because if you don’t do it, you don’t retain it. Our instructors also let the students experiment with some things. For example, with print processing, they will say, “Can you process the fingerprint using this? I’ve heard you can. Let’s try it.” And they’ll experiment with different things. mmm


Special thanks to Nagmeldin (Nagy) Salem for contributing his technical expertise to make the compilation of this interview possible.

View this article in its original format in our March-April 2013 Digital Edition

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