Detectives show how crimes get solved


Much like in the hit show CSI: Crime Scene Investigations when a crime happens in Edison, the scene is analyzed, evidence is collected and, ideally, a picture of what happened eventually emerges.

According to Detective Lisa Katana, a 14-year veteran of the force, this is where the resemblance ends.

“We don’t have those beautiful backlit desks and glass offices. But we do work with what we have and [do it well],” said Katana.

The Edison Police Department continued its civilian police academy on Nov. 19 with a discussion on the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), which looks into crimes of all sorts in Edison, from assaults to burglaries to murders, followed by a demonstration of what a traffic stop looks like from the police point of view.

Katana said that the BCI tends to investigate burglaries the most, noting that in a town the size of Edison, it tends to be what happens. Regardless of the type of crime, however, once an area has been deemed to be a major crime scene, Edison detectives soon arrive and begin processing the evidence.

This procedure, said Katana, involves, first, sealing off the scene, which is usually done by the first responding officer so as to not disturb potential evidence. She said that investigating a crime scene requires one to strike a fine balance between caution and action. One wants to be careful so as to not contaminate the scene, but, on the other hand, if an investigator gets too cautious, they’ll be too afraid to do anything, including vital tasks that may reveal more information.

Still, even the most cavalier of crime scene investigators know that the standard equipment for examining a scene are booties and gloves, a new pair for every piece of evidence collected, as well as a camera to take lots and lots of photographs, from the moment one walks out of the car to the minute one gets back in. Sometimes, if the situation calls for it, extra equipment like large lights, a canopy and tools like chain saws or shovels are required.

The littlest disturbances need to be documented, down to even if the toilet gets flushed. In the same vein, police are told to never, ever drink, eat or smoke at a crime scene.

As an investigator travels through the scene, everything gets documented, through pictures, notes, physical tags made of cardboard placed at certain locations, or simply collected and placed in a special container.

A very important part of all this, said Katana, is fingerprinting. While fingerprints fall into one of three classes, arches, loops or whorls, everyone’s prints are unique. As she was explaining this, many people in the audience began looking at their hands.

Fingerprints, through use of special materials like a powder that reacts to the oils left behind by fingertips, or a gas that will fill in the gaps, are vital in determining who was at a scene. The variety of different materials and techniques speak to the varied abilities of different surfaces to hold fingerprints. Ideally, one wants a nonporous, nonabsorbent surface like glass, metal of treated wood. Other kinds of surfaces, such as paper, nontreated wood or latex-painted surfaces are a bit more difficult and require more ingenuity on the part of the investigator. Still, Katana said that with enough time and effort, prints can be lifted from even difficult surfaces.

“There is some hope, even for items not good for getting prints off them,” said Katana.

Once the police have a fingerprint, a sample is checked against the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), a national database that can help police match fingerprints with millions of potential suspects.

Another important tool in investigations that has been increasingly common is DNA evidence. Katana said that processing DNA used to be a very expensive procedure, but with new technology, it’s becoming more accessible. Still, she said it’s not like on the show CSI, where a match is immediately produced, along with a picture of the person’s face. That kind of technology exists only for dramatic purposes.

“A lot of people who watch [CSI] really believe that equipment exists,” said Katana, noting that this phenomena has been referred to as the “CSI Effect.”

Instead, the detective will collect the evidence, with certain materials, such as hair and spent cigarettes, being ideal and then send them to the state police lab for analysis. The material is checked against the Combined DNA Indexing System (CODIS), a vast database of millions of people’s DNA. Every offender, she said, for a first- through fifth-degree crime is in the database, taken through a simple cheek swab.

After this discussion, the class broke off into small groups to examine a number of simulated crime scenes in order to apply what they just learned. One involved a man (really a plastic dummy) laying head down in a pool of blood, his face angled to the side, seated at a table. Beside the body was a revolver and behind him was a red splatter. While first glance might reveal an obvious suicide, the bullets found near the base of the table were from a semi-automatic weapon that wouldn’t work with the revolver at the scene.

Detective Peter Vereb, leading one group through the scene, said that detectives often work in pairs, with a more experienced cop helping a newer one learn the finer points of crime scene investigation.

The night concluded with a simulated traffic stop led by Sgt. Robert Dudash and Detective Theodore Hamer. While many people have gotten pulled over by police for any number of reasons, few know what it’s like from the police officer’s side.

What happens, first, is that the officer announces the stop to headquarters over the radio, relaying where they are as well. After reading off the license plate, the communications person is able to let them know about anything the officer in the car might want to know, such as if the car is unregistered or stolen.

When the officer gets out of the car and approaches the one pulled over, they’ll place their hand on the back of the car, so if the vehicle suddenly drives away, the handprint will be there as proof that the officer was there at the time.

From there, the standard license, registration, and do you know why I pulled you over ensues, though this entire time the officer’s eyes are also scanning the interior of the car for any signs of trouble. During the simulated stop, for example, the driver had a gun (really plastic) tucked between the seat and the center console that would only be visible to those who were observant.

While the driver’s-side officer, the “contact officer” is interacting with the driver, the partner observes both the driver and car, acting as a second set of eyes and hands, to make sure that the contact officer is safe.

Hamer said that police work involves constantly updating what they know, noting that new techniques for hiding things like drugs and guns are evolving constantly; the police must, in turn, evolve right with them.

“It’s always a learning experience, because criminals are always learning new things,”

Contact Chris Gaetano at sentnorth@