CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD)- In the second to last week of the Charleston Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy, we were given the opportunity to learn what goes on behind the scenes of a police investigation.

The class gathered at CPD’s new facility for the Forensics Service Division on Bees Ferry Road. Inside the 22,000 square foot building a team of crime scene investigators, latent print examiners, forensic scientists, photographers, digital evidence examiners, and laboratory technicians help piece together the puzzle of a crime.

The facility opened in March 2021 as a way to increase efficiency and safety. Before, each forensic service was scattered in different facilities around the city.

Accredited by ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB) since 1998, CPD’s Forensics Services Division was the first in the state to gain international accreditation.

The team assists with crime scene investigations, seized drug analysis, body fluid identification, serial number identification, digital evidence examination, fire debris analysis, friction ridge recovery and identification (fingerprinting), and firearm analysis.

Wednesday’s class instruction began with an understanding of the main responsibilities of crime scene investigators from scene processing and response to providing witness testimony in court.

Then, we learned the order of procedures when processing a crime scene:

  1. Debrief by the responding officer
  2. Initial Assessment
  3. Documentation (photos, sketches, etc.)
  4. Prioritize Transient Evidence (any evidence that could be easily moved, changed, or lost like hair follicles, clothing fibers, etc)
  5. Evidence Collection
  6. Final Search

Ashley Wojslawowicz, who has been a master crime scene investigator at CPD for 12 years, stresses the importance of keeping detailed reports when analyzing a scene.

“Everything we do gets written into a very detailed, systematic report so the more thorough the better,” she said. “We want to be able to document our observations, what we did, why we did it, and justify it.”

Wojsalwowicz emphasized to the class that crime scene analysis is not always like what is seen on popular TV shows like CSI: Miami. She said the time it takes to process evidence varies greatly based on the scene and can sometimes take weeks or even months.

Then, we started a discussion on latent recovery which is the process of finding, lifting, analyzing, and matching fingerprints, footprints, and palm prints. For the purposes of the class, we focused mainly on fingerprints and learned the different patterns technicians look for.

“For fingerprints, usually those are invisible to the naked eye, so they need some kind of enhancement,” Wojsalwowicz explained. “So, when we get on the scene we’ll apply different types of fingerprint powder or we’ll assess it and see if it needs a chemical application and needs to be brought back to the lab for chemical processing.”

Fingerprints can be divided into three main categories: loops, arches, and whorls. Loops are the most commonly observed pattern, 65% of fingerprints. Approximately 30% of fingerprints are whorls and arches only make up about 5% of fingerprints.

Courtesy Everilda via Adobe Stock

Once we learned the types of fingerprints, it was time to put our technical skills to the test.

The first group went into the latent recovery room and put on a pair of gloves. Each person in the class was given two pieces of “evidence” to dust for fingerprints. We used a small vile of black powder to reveal the prints and then lifted them for observation.

Fingerprint lifted from a Pepsi can

The second group went on a tour of the facility with Director Judy Gordon where she explained and showed us the different capabilities of the crime lab. We saw the firearms testing chamber, the vehicle search bay, the digital evidence recovery room, the drug testing lab, and the future site of the DNA lab.

Currently, all DNA processing for the Charleston Police Department has to go to the only lab in the state- the SLED lab in Columbia. But, significant backlogs have caused major delays in processing, so CPD is working to get its own lab.

Gordon explained that funding is the biggest roadblock as the lab costs millions of dollars, but also an accreditation. Unlike other services like digital evidence, a DNA lab must be accredited before it can operate to ensure accuracy and reliability.

While there are still some elements that the division hopes to add in the near future, Wojslawowicz said the team is able to do almost everything needed on a daily basis at the Bees Ferry Road facility.

“In general, it’s the DNA that we’re still outsourcing and there’s [sic] certain elements of the firearms that we’re still outsourcing,” she said. “Other than that, for the most part, we are self-sufficient which is really great. It’s a benefit when it comes to turnaround time with evidence processing and getting results to detectives.”

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*EDITOR’S NOTE: This course is specific to the Charleston Police Department and reflects only the training, policies, and procedures of that agency. Each law enforcement agency/department has its own standards and guidelines.