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COVID won’t stop crime. How can we protect investigators at crime scenes?

COVID may have curtailed travel, hospitality, education and entertainment, but crime scene investigation never stops. As a forensic scientist, researcher and lecturer, I know first-hand the risks and challenges crime scene investigation (CSI) teams have faced over the past two years as we’ve grappled with the realities of operating amid the threat of COVID. CSI…

COVID may be limiting travel, hospitality and education, but the investigation into crime scenes never ends.

As a , researcher, and lecturer, you know the risks and challenges (CSI), teams have had to face over the past two-years as they dealt with the reality of operating under the threat of COVID.

CSI units pose a unique challenge because investigators are often kept close to the scene for extended periods of time. Surprisingly, the existing procedures for crime scene investigations have not been changed much.

When COVID first appeared, guidelines were quickly introduced in a range of countries for forensic autopsies of COVID-positive cases and the handling of infected biological samples, but not for CSI protocols more generally.

How should CSI teams protected?

One possibility is CSI teams could adopt the existing protective measures used for chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incidents.

Those measures were largely developed in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, and in response to broader concerns about terrorism that began to emerge in the 1990s.

However, these safety precautions can be burdensome, time-consuming, and costly, especially for local and regional law enforcement agencies. They are also not always useful in dealing with viruses.

Officers would require more bulky equipment to identify a potential agent of toxic warfare than the standard PPE that is used to prevent COVID infection.

Crime won't stop because of COVID. So how should we protect crime scene investigators?
To minimize cross-infection with COVID, this is a suggested layout. Credit: Di Luise & Magni/Science & Justice

And let’s not forget that the role of law enforcement agencies includes other tasks such as crime prevention, public order, and identifying, securing, and providing evidence to a criminal court. Each police department should have its own specialist inforensic agents. This would be ideal. However, officers are often trained to collect forensic evidence, even in remote and small-sized cities.

All over the world during the 2020 lockdowns, minor offenses such as burglaries and car thefts declined. However, there were no drops in serious crimes like homicide or domestic violence.

In fact, COVID has arguably created new types of incidents to investigate, such as suspicious deaths in hotel quarantine.

COVID appears to be here for a while yet. What is the most cost-effective and practical way to ensure that our CSI teams are protected?

COVID-safe crime scenes

One place to look for ideas is Italy, which has so far recorded 5.6 million COVID cases and almost 140,000 deaths.

Together with Enrico Di Luise of the Italian Military Police Laboratory of Forensic Biology in Messina, I have published a world-first set of recommendations to make forensic operations possible across the different phases of crime scene management, from evidence collection in the field to analysis in the lab.

Briefly: Our recommendations include

  • CSI call policy. Operations call center staff must be trained to request information regarding the health of victims and other persons involved in the case. This will ensure that they are prepared for any eventualities.
  • Equipment preparation and sanitation. If an object is contaminated on the scene of a crime it can spread infection to other members of the CSI team. Each member of the team should have their own set of equipment. This includes briefcases and evidence boxes, chemical sets, chemical reagent sets and ultraviolet flashlights. The disposal of any tools or materials should be considered medical waste and placed in an area designated for the crime scene. Disposable items should first be cleaned at the crime scene using bleach or sanitiser. Then, they should be returned to headquarters for a second cleaning. The staff should wear appropriate PPE and do this in a designated room.
  • Working groups. CSI team should be able to maintain independent forensic capacity, including experts in at least the areas of forensic biology, fingerprint analysis and photography, plus the ability for one team member to also take on the

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