Welcome to River City
Written by Dr. Joe LeFevre   

Photo: Fox Valley Technical College

Rooms, halls, indoors, outdoors, and even atop classroom tables—wherever evidence can be found, effective mock crime scene training and testing presents an integral way to gauge if someone is competent in the field of forensic science. This type of training has reached new heights in detail thanks to the new 75-acre, $34 million Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) Public Safety Training Center (PSTC) in Greenville, Wisc.

The PSTC provides simulated and hands-on tactical training experiences for both degree students and existing public safety practitioners. It is the centerpiece facility project that resulted from the passage of a public referendum by a 2-1 margin in 2012 for the college.

For quite some time, FVTC has been a provider of international specialized training programs for various levels of law enforcement and forensic science, in addition to issues involving missing persons, AMBER Alerts, Internet Crimes Against Children, human trafficking, and more. Subsequently, it makes sense that a facility of this magnitude brings law enforcement, first responders, and firefighters together to raise the bar on integrative best practices in public safety training.

The critical work of forensic investigators and scientists frequently complement the role of these disciplines, particularly those involving police officers. Both students in a degree program and forensic professionals doing in-house training can benefit from crime scene scenarios and their accompanying technology. Scenario-based training possibilities are virtually unlimited at the PSTC thanks in large part to the following:

  • A simulated training village (dubbed “River City”) with a motel, multi-level homes, and a convenience store—providing a plethora of crime scene opportunities.
  • A FedEx Boeing 727 airplane, serving as a real-world prop for crime scene investigations, law enforcement drills and crisis situations, and emergency medical response procedures.
  • Three train cars that simulate a derailment wreck requiring specialized, multi-disciplinary responders to assess various technical elements of a mock investigation.
  • And an expanded forensic laboratory with an adjacent evidence handling room, vehicle technician garage, and access to a Leica Geosystems Scan Station C10-3D that generates rapid, precise data in a three-dimensional format for use in analyzing crime scenes.

So, with an abundance of simulator scenarios and technology in place, how does one go about setting up a mock crime scene? Many people believe that setting up a mock crime scene is as easy as dropping some evidence items into a room and wiping some fake blood on a wall. While those practices have a place in the big picture of forensic studies, unfortunately, all too often people get overly zealous in setting up a mock crime scene. They tend to create what is best called an “orgy of evidence.”

Remember, in learning environments there are often time constraints. At real crime scenes, investigators can take as much time as needed. Yet it seems many instructors favor arranging complex scenes that can’t be thoroughly analyzed in the time allowed. Consequently, outcomes are a bit predictable in a learning environment when students should be focused on using the scientific method to document all the facts. Otherwise, predictably, learners will overlook items or work in a disorganized fashion as a result of being rushed.

The emphasis on outcomes in a mock crime scene should not be on pre-determined variables like missed items or on the disorganization in scene management. Those concepts are vital to applying skills in mock crime scenes, but they should be unraveled naturally—not as the result of a clock.

For instance, a messy crime scene may be the result of a certain phase of forensic investigation based on the nature of evidence. Maybe the evidence caused a shift in crime scene management to potentially search for related clues, thus requiring a temporary, yet documented, modification to the original scene’s anatomy (like digging or removing a floor board).

Regardless of a student’s experience level, the first priority in designing an effective crime scene is a commitment to the outcome. What tasks should this crime scene help the student master? Consider these common task-related outcomes:

  • Sketching and measurement
  • Photography
  • Specific types of crimes
    • Property crime response
    • Violent crime response (including sexual assault)
    • Death scenes

The above identified outcomes keep an investigation centered on particular goals within a process as compared to immediately rendered analysis based on the whole scene’s intended result (which is usually trying to solve a crime). Solving any crime today where evidence is aggressively attacked in unprecedented ways through the legal system really can’t occur without stepping stones of diligence along the way: a.k.a. outcomes.

Leveraging locations for evidence training and education enhances the learning experience and better prepares students for a diverse world of sites where crime can occur. Don’t hesitate to ask around for the use of a training prop (an unoccupied house, a store front, or other unused buildings). Obviously, access to a training prop such as a house—like what’s at FVTC’s PSTC in River City—is a foundation for best practices, but working in a classroom or a police department training setting can still allow for a quality mock scene.

The key is to start looking at an approximation to a real environment. In other words, “How do you turn a classroom into a house or business if you don't have access to a location for a mock scene?" Imagination comes into play, like setting four tables together and covering them with a sheet to make a bed. Likewise, arrange tables to make a cash-register area and an aisle to mimic a convenience store. Even without access to a building as a training prop, a quality mock crime scene can be created if the instructor takes some prep time.

Once the first learning objective is established and a location is in place, it’s time set up the scene.

Students at Fox Valley Technical College utilize scanning technology at a mock crime scene. Photo: Fox Valley Technical College

Crime Scene Sketching and Measurement

Sketching and measuring crime scenes are rudimentary skills that often need more attention during training. They’re always taught in initial crime scene training classes, but are sometimes overlooked during more detailed and sophisticated exercises that come later in a program or curricula. Sometimes an obvious step in a forensic process can be overlooked because we are too focused on the “cool” factors instead of the basics. Staying true to the process and to the basics, one outcome at a time, can occasionally open doors for more in-depth analysis.

Setting up a scene for diagramming instruction is easy. For these scenes, simple is best: a small room with limited furniture. Many times I don’t even create a scenario for this scene. I just place some random objects on the floor and a few on a tabletop. This way learners are not caught up in the “solve the crime” mindset; they are tuned in to a skill set. The only related task is to recreate the scene to scale on paper.

Crime Scene Photography

Like sketching, photography is a skill-building exercise. Again, let’s resort in this context to creating a scene without necessarily needing to build a complex scenario. As with the previous suggested setup, we can simply place objects out in the open. The idea here is to make sure there is a variety of objects that require a mix of photographic techniques. This should include objects that will need to be photographed with a scale. It is also good practice to have something with a serial number or written note so that learners can work on capturing that information photographically.

Specific Types of Crimes

For specific crime types—for instance, theft or death—having a scenario in mind is always better than random objects. Here, the situation is no longer a single-skill building exercise; it is about understanding the investigation as a process through scripting. Having a script in your mind as to what the suspect did at the scene will help place the evidence. Gaining an idea of why evidence is located at a particular part of the scene infuses students with methods needed to uncover clues. Occasionally, clues can lead to expanding a designated crime scene and ultimately bring the investigator one step closer to solving a crime.

My scripts are not always fully flushed-out scenarios. I know a crime was committed and may have an idea as to how it was carried through, but I have no clue who (the boyfriend, a rival drug dealer, the butler) the suspect might be. My goal for the students is to keep them looking for facts versus hanging out at the scene trying to connect the dots that link Colonel Mustard to the candlestick holder.

In setting up these scenes, start at the scene’s main visible entrance and walk through it as if you are the suspect. Reposition objects the suspect would have to move and leave behind the evidence this person would keep there. Then exit via how you believe a suspect would exit. This helps prevent the “orgy of evidence” syndrome so many instructors fall into when setting up a scene by keeping the process pragmatic per the mindset of a suspect.

Other Scenes

From time to time people might need a mock crime scene that is outside the box, such as an underwater scene or one that involves fire. Typically, these scenes will require a location with simulated technology that is part of specialized training programs.

General Mock Scene Tips

I recommended having a small collection of pre-arranged and pre-defined crime scenes with all-important props kept in a box or tote. Yet, at the same time, I like to keep things fresh so past students can’t tell current students the spoilers to ruin the scene. Each tote has a good mix of props and evidence based on the specific scene type.

For example, the sexual-assault scene box has a collection of cloths, bedding with stains, throw pillows for a couch with stains, beer cans, wine bottles, and even drug paraphernalia. This way I can set up variations of the same theme in different rooms for different classes.

In the suicide scene box there are guns, knives, and ropes. There is also some Halloween makeup that mimics wounds to apply to mannequins. That box also contains a folder filled with pre-written suicide notes, letters of termination, eviction notices, and other documents to support someone wishing to end his or her life.

In conclusion, setting up an effective mock crime scene should be thought of as creating a good learning environment. When looking to build a skill, keep the scene simple to focus on a specific task for the purpose of finding outcomes. Once learners are ready to process a full scene and not treat it like an area where they will “solve a crime,” create a logical scene that can be fully processed within some reasonable time limits. Remember, a mock crime scene is a learning environment, not a secret needle in a haystack.

For More Information

To learn more about the Fox Valley Technical College mock crime scene setup, to go: www.fvtc.edu/forensicscience

About the Author

Dr. Joe LeFevre has served in diverse roles within the field of public safety, including positions as a police officer, patrol supervisor, field training officer, evidence technician, firefighter II, fire department engineer, and fire investigator. In 2011 he became the Forensic Science program coordinator at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis. LeFevre is a contributing author to the text book, An Introduction to Crime Scene Investigation, and he has also written articles for several other law enforcement magazines.

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