S.O.R.T.I.E. - Special Operations Rescue Tactical Interdiction Expeditions

Underwater Crime Scene Diving - 101

By Joe Hurlburt

"What is Crime Scene Diving?"

Crime scene diving is a technical part of fire rescue and law enforcement, done by professional divers who are specially trained to handle items used in the commission of a crime. These items will be tested in crime labs and may later be used in a court of law. Crime scene diving can include any of the following: body recovery, an investigation of a drowning victim or scuba fatality, evidence recovery (i.e., firearms, knifes and any items that may have been used in the commission of a crime), recovery of an automobile or an airplane, dive site procedures and search patterns used during the recovery of any evidence.

It is important for a dive team, when recovering evidence, not only to locate the evidence, but to preserve and maintain the chain of evidence. Prepared procedures by a dive team during the recovery of evidence will establish credibility and professionalism for any dive team.

Once a crime scene has been identified, how is the evidence going to be handled? The dive team members need to set up an evidence recovery area and a storage area that "maintains the chain of evidence." Most important is proper documentation and preservation of evidence. The Chain of Custody "is proven if an officer is able to testify that he or she took control of the item of physical evidence, identified it, placed it in a locked or protected area, and retrieved the item being offered on the day of trial." (Black's Law Dictionary) In laymen's terms, the diver who recovers the evidence is the only person who should handle the evidence. Initials of the person and the date the evidence was found and when it was placed into the evidence container are necessary. Then the evidence in the container can be taken to a crime lab for examination. Use evidence containers of the correct size so the evidence is not damaged or altered. The types of containers range from body bags to locking boxes of various sizes or maybe zip-loc bags. These all help keep the recovered items wet. I have seen numerous times when an individual found an item used in the commission of crime and passed it around to show all his friends what was found. I was once told about a diver who recovered a handgun. The diver was so excited that the individual was waving the gun all over the place and showing his friends what he had found. It was later discovered that the handgun was loaded. Not very professional!

Photographic recording of evidence is just as important for water related incidents as it is for land based scenes. Underwater photography is an investigative specialty and requires special training. Underwater photography is not always possible, because of low or no visibility water. If you cannot take actual crime scene photos, you may want to do crime scene sketches. Then, after the evidence is recovered, photos can be taken. The importance of underwater photographs cannot be overlooked. It will bring your testimony to life. It can give your courtroom testimony a clear picture of what you saw and what took place, based on the photographs and evidence recovered. Underwater photographs can aid in your report writing, refreshing your memory of what you saw and what you did during your investigation.

The preservation of evidence (metal items)

Keep the evidence submerged in fresh water after recovery until the evidence can be examined by a crime technician or a crime lab.

How can you physically pick up a weapon and other metal evidence to avoid ruining fingerprints?

When you are collecting evidence it is important to keep in mind what specifically will be needed from the piece of evidence and how it should be handled. If fingerprints are needed, be careful not to touch areas where fingerprints may be present. Fingerprints can still be obtained from a recovered weapon even after it has been placed in the water. In cases where corrosion and/or oxidation has occurred you should dry at an accelerated rate, either with a good blow dryer or a drying oven.

When recovering a weapon it should be handled on the rough surfaces, such as the wood grips of the pistol or the stock of the rifle. When the weapon is recovered, the area of the weapon to be examined should be air dried and examined quickly. A weapon that is properly preserved will usually have a good ballistics comparison. The inside of a weapon, rifle or pistol is marked with a spiral pattern known as the rifling. Like fingerprints, the weapon barrel leaves a characteristic marking which cannot be repeated by any other weapon. Because of this, never place anything in the barrel of a weapon. Any marks or scratches, even microscopic marks left on a test bullet fired from a recovered weapon, may render it useless as evidence. All attempts should be made to keep the rifling of the weapon untouched during the recovery.

Sometimes we need to look for tiny evidence, which requires different search procedures. Sifting through the sand, mud and gravel looking for a piece of evidence using a metal grate or sifting device during an underwater crime scene or crime scene class can be the difference between finding a piece of evidence or not. The metal grate may be made of screen welded on three sides with L-shaped metal, leaving one side open to scoop up sand, mud or gravel. The bottom composition is sifted through the screen. After the composition is sifted through, hopefully only evidence will be left in the metal grate. The metal grate can speed up the searching process for a piece of evidence that has settled into the bottom. The crime scene diver slowly sifts out the sand, mud or gravel looking for evidence that could not be detected by the underwater metal detector.

Example of an evidence tag:

Photo of: ______________________
Case #: _______________________
Photo by: Date: _________________

In order to have an effective underwater crime scene investigation we need an underwater crime scene dive team, a surface support team, and methods for handling the media. We must be prepared to perform proper search patterns depending on weather and water conditions. Now if we took out the words "underwater" and "diving" in any part of this article, the subject would be a police officer describing a "How to" in an investigation or any investigation office at a local police department, right? However, not all things are the same when it comes to investigating underwater. What does the diver do when he has found evidence? What type of underwater searches are going to be used and how is the search pattern going to be recorded topside? What equipment will be useful? Are lift bags, ropes and lines, small floats or maybe marker buoys needed? Are we going to be searching in an ocean, lake, pond or quarry? Does the water have good visibility or no visibility at all? Will we be searching in a river and will the river have fast- or slow-moving water? Will there be waterfalls or maybe dams?

Underwater Crime Scene Operations require plenty of training such as underwater photography, drysuit diving, boat diving, deep diving, public safety recovery, and public safety rescue training. Crime scene diving can be done at any time of the day and at a minutes notice, so the crime scene diver has to be well trained and knowledgeable in his or her job. Training for the crime scene diver is ongoing and continuous.

Who should have crime scene diver training? If the local dive team is part of a fire department, and that team may be asked to retrieve evidence, then those divers should have crime scene diving training. Any dive team that may purposely or accidentally recover evidence should have this training, at least to an awareness level.

In my 16-year law enforcement career, I have taken and attended classes in Criminal Investigation, Crime Scene Investigation, Underwater Investigation and I am a PADI Underwater Crime Scene Instructor. Any law enforcement and rescue dive team member needing more information or requesting certification to be a crime scene diver may contact me at (303) 988-4128 or E-mail me at: denverdive@aol.com.