ATLANTA – Some of the most intelligent scientists, crime scene analysts and dogged investigators merged this week during the 102nd International Forensic Educational Conference.
More than a thousand police, lab and forensic physical evidence professionals gathered at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta to learn, teach and test the newest tools, tricks and trends in solving crime.
It’s an industry that is of utmost importance in the overall checks and balances of crime and justice.
“We’re not the voice of the prosecution, necessarily. We’re the voice of justice and we’re the voice of reason and we’re trying to present information,” Bill Schade, a member of International Association for Identification (IAI), said.
And it’s a career, he said, of continuous learning and constant change.
“[I’m] always evolving, because science is always evolving,” he said. “I like to think that even though I’m old-school, I’m also an old dog learning new tricks.”
"We’re on the cutting edge and staying current and not overstating our results—giving a fair, accurate, objective presentation of the findings.”
Schade, a biometric records manager at Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, in Largo, Fla., has more than four decades of experience, stemming from his work as a police officer, in New York, where he was a fingerprint analyst in 1971. He progressed to latent fingerprint and crime scene analysis in 1976—when nothing was digital and everything was done by hand.
But, today, while everything is at your fingertips, fingerprints aren’t enough anymore.
“We’re not saying that a partial fingerprint isn’t a positive identification, but can you really make that conclusion from that tiny, little fragmentary latent print that was left at the crime scene?
"When I started 40 years ago, we were told, ‘You make a conclusion, you vet it, you get it verified—it’s a conclusion; it’s positive; you go to court and you don’t back down.’ To admit that you might be wrong? That was the death of your career. And now, we’ve come to the point where some identifications are not as strong as others.”
Forensics, as a whole, isn't so black and white anymore--especially the more exposure the public has into how investigations work.
Everyone is an amateur sleuth if they have watched any crime TV show, like "CSI," "Forensic Files" or "Dateline."
But, when those “detectives” take a seat on a jury, they expect more. And real-life detectives and forensic professionals, as well as attorneys inside the courtroom, have more to prove to them.
“Forensics used to be the smoking gun. A fingerprint at the crime scene? Well, you were guilty in the eyes of some people, because there’s no way there could be any other explanation,” Schade said. “Now, we’re realizing, well, that’s part of the investigation,” creating investigative leads, rather than conclusive results in anybody’s guilt or innocence.
It’s no longer enough to go into court and tell them you’re an expert and that they should believe you, he said. You must show data, prove it and to their satisfaction and understanding.
“The average person should be able to see what I’m talking about, and if they cannot, maybe I should rethink what I’m talking about. We want them to know, you can believe what we say…"
Furthermore, Schade said, everyone is affected by forensics, and everyone expects it, whether it’s carjackings, home invasions or thefts.
“Forensics, now, is used on [everything]—you don’t get away with only doing the big crimes. You’ve gotta cover all of the issues that are out there. It’s quality of life. It’s what the public expects. The biggest contribution we make is to that everyday stuff.”
“It’s not always about catching the bad guy; it really is about the start of the investigation,” Schade said. “Every homicide investigation begins with identifying the deceased—that’s the start of it, and many times, that’s not always possible.”
When you have to wait, he said, “that investigation is growing cold from day one.
The emphasis on cold cases reopening, identification of bodies of missing people that have never had closure. It’s not always about criminal behavior or convicting somebody of a crime--biometrics and positive ID benefit people as well.
"It’s the foundation of criminal justice."
That’s where forensics and biometrics play their part.
Biometrics are identification types outside of the demographic data, like name, age, sex and date of birth. Biometrics can be fingerprints, palm prints, footprints, iris, retina, facial recognition, the way we walk, DNA and body odor.
While DNA isn’t the fastest or friendliest of biometrics, taking weeks to months to get results, Schade said, there is a new rapid approach to testing DNA at the scene.
“They have a machine that you can bring to a crime scene and you put the swabs in and you generate the profile from the DNA sample in like two hours. That’s emerging technology and it’s not really here yet—and it’s hideously expensive at the moment. But everything is [when it first comes out.]”
Now, he said, some departments have the technology to fingerprint from the scene of a traffic stop and on the scene of a homicide to confirm the person’s identity.
(Watch videos, below, and scroll through photo gallery, above, to see the latest in forensic and biometric technology.)
The week-long IAI Conference included more than 150 lectures and workshops in crime scene processing, photography, collection and examination of latent print, footwear, tire track, bloodstain, biometric and impression evidence—including the latest techniques, standards, methods and developments.
“I think the future is bright for forensics, because forensics are needed. Juries need information to make a decision. Jurors want information so that they can sleep at night. You don’t base a decision on how a person looks or how you feel about them; you want to have some material facts that you can consider.”