Anyone who has watched a crime show on TV knows pretty much what the forensics team does: process the scene, collect evidence, do the science to determine all sorts of info and even carry a weapon and go with uniformed offices to arrest the criminal. Right? Wrong.
The Crime Scene Investigation professionals and the Forensics professionals are actually two different groups of people in law enforcement. Dave Dammon, Criminal Justice faculty member at Kishwaukee College and Sargeant with the Belvidere Police Department makes that distinction very clear to his students. “One group processes the scene,” he explained. “The other group is in the lab processing the evidence scientifically.”
Within the Criminal Justice Program, Kishwaukee College offers a two-year Associate in Applied Science degree in Forensic Technology that includes chemistry and biology in addition to the other Criminal Justice requirements. The program also offers a one-year certificate in Crime Scene Processing that requires a sequence of Criminalistics courses.
Dave Dammon makes sure that the students get a full range of experiences in both classes both inside the state-of-the art Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) lab and in the more traditional laboratory in the Forensics Lab. Both CSI and Forensics labs were part of the College’s remodel in 2012 and Dave makes great use of them to set up mock crime scenes and give the students the opportunity to perform labs that can take several days to complete. “We currently offer labs and hands-on sessions that no other community college in the state offers. I feel we have one of the best programs out there,” he said. “But I want to keep on increasing our use of technology for policing and in the forensics lab.”
Students in Dave’s classes gain experience in everything from extracting DNA from “crime scene” samples and doing a comparison against “suspect” samples to a forensics entomology experiment on campus this spring. The entomology experiment tested the scientific observation skills and stomach of the students. Raw chicken was left in controlled test areas on campus – near water, near the tree line, and near an agricultural field. The students observed insect activity at each site over a couple of weeks, collecting samples to take back to the lab.
Hannah Miller, Stillman Valley, noted that air filtering masks with a smear of Vicks Vaporub was the best way to collect samples from the meat sites. “It was really interesting though because what kind of insects you found were a little bit different based on location,” she explained. “That’s important in providing information on whether a body had been moved or not. You can get a good idea of how long a body has been in place by the life cycle of the insects. It was cool, but smelly.”
For Hannah and her fellow students, Courtney Bolin, Kirkland, and Victoria Rodriguez, Rochelle, all the high-tech preparation over the course of the year leads to one place: the CSI competition at SkillsUSA. This year was the trio’s first time competing in CSI. Hannah said, “None of us had ever participated in a Skills competition so we practiced and read textbooks nonstop until just moments before we competed at state. For nationals, Dave was determined to not let us overthink everything. We reviewed and prepped each morning before competition but he wanted us to relax and just go with the flow.”
SkillsUSA is a national, state, regional, and local organization for technical, skilled, health and personal service occupations for students who are enrolled in high school and college. The CSI competition is based on a crime scene that the SkillsUSA organization sets up. The students, in teams of three, walk in to the scene cold and must process it correctly. Students must maintain a photo log, evidence log and preserve the chain of custody of the evidence collected. After the scene has been processed, the students write a report, draw the crime scene sketch and mark their evidence.
It is a competition that requires teamwork and extreme attention to detail as well as knowledge on how to perform specific skills and techniques – like lifting a latent fingerprint – efficiently and accurately. Dave explained, “The team is composed of a Leader, Photo/Evidence and Scene Diagram. They are judged at nationals on more than their CSI skills at the scene, but also take an observation test, interview, and evidence processing.”
The Kish team was well prepared: they took First Place in the State SkillsUSA competition in April and traveled to Louisville, Kentucky to compete on a national level, earning 8th Place in the nation. “I am so proud of my first-time team. Working with Victoria and Courtney was an absolute blessing and an honor. Each one of us brought something to this team that seemed to perfectly balance us out,” Hannah stated. “I truly hope eighth in the nation made our school proud because we’re sure proud to be a part of Kish!”
For the Kish team, placing on a national stage under time constraints and observation was a goal they worked hard to achieve. For Dave Dammon, it is a just the first step. “We finished 8th in the nation this year and I am proud of the team,” he said. “Now that they have one SkillsUSA competition under their belt, I see them on podium next year, for sure.”