The Science of Crime Fighting

Not every crime fighter carries a badge and a firearm. Behind the front lines, professionals in hospitals and laboratories aid police with a different kind of powerful weapon—a science degree.

Lt. Mike Dougan of the Millcreek Township Police Department demonstrates fingerprint collection in a forensic nursing class.

Lt. Mike Dougan of the Millcreek Township Police Department demonstrates fingerprint collection in a forensic nursing class.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Forensic Nursing

When you think of the most important roles in the criminal justice system, you probably think of police officers, lawyers, and judges. But there is another vital and often-overlooked link—nurses. They are frequently among the first people to see and interact with victims of violent crime or abuse.

“When victims need medical attention, they are brought to nurses first,” said Amy LeSuer, lecturer in nursing at Penn State Behrend. “We help them before law enforcement officials can.”

To that end, part of the care that nurses are expected to provide today includes careful evaluation, recording, assessment, and preservation of forensic evidence.

“It’s important for nurses to be educated on how to deal with evidence, communicate with victims, be aware of the resources available to assist victims, and document their work in a way that will hold up in a court of law,” LeSuer said.

A variety of topics are covered in class, from recognizing the signs of abuse to evidence collection to courtroom preparation. Coursework also touches on bite-mark analysis, human trafficking, forensic entomology (the study of insects and other arthropod biology in criminal matters), DNA analysis, and psychological injury.

Guest speakers, such as Lt. Mike Dougan of the nearby Millcreek Township Police Department, teach nursing students about evidence collection and storage, crime scene investigation, chain of command protocol, and the role of nurses in the process.

“Forensic work is common sense,” Dougan told nursing students. “Think before you act, move, or speak. Cut around bullet holes when removing clothes, bag their hands if you suspect the wound is self-inflicted, include a scale when you photograph wounds and bruises.”

While emergency room and mental health nurses may see the largest volume of victims, LeSuer said all nurses will likely deal with forensic matters at some time, which is why Penn State offers a certificate in forensic nursing.

“No matter what sub-specialty the nurse works in, they have a responsibility to screen patients for abuse and safe home situations, ”she said. “I think the forensic nursing class shows students how important they are in the legal system.”

In the Lab

Ted Williams ’84 spends his days surrounded by drugs. No, he’s not a pharmacist and he didn’t “break bad.” Just the opposite, actually. Williams is a forensic scientist supervisor overseeing the Drug Identification Section at the Pennsylvania State Police Crime Lab in Erie.

Contrary to what you see on CSI and Criminal Minds, Williams said crime lab scientists are not typically out in the field, nor do they have high-tech wall-projected computer display systems, and they certainly don’t have cases that are wrapped up in sixty minutes.

“There are grains of truth in those shows, but in real life, nothing is done in an hour,” Williams said. “We have a three-to four-month backlog right now.”

It’s easy to see why. Williams and four other scientists in the crime lab process evidence from thirteen Pennsylvania counties and 300 police departments. He estimates they evaluate about 2,500 cases a year.

Williams, who earned a degree in Applied Science with a focus in Chemistry at Penn State Behrend, is a civilian employee of the Pennsylvania State Police under the Bureau of Forensic Services.

Unlike his television counterparts, Williams doesn’t generally know much about the case involving the evidence he is evaluating. That’s how it should be.

“When you get down to the science, you need to be objective,” he said. “It’s our job to find out what the substance is and report our findings to the investigating officer.”

When he started at the lab in the late ‘80s, Williams said he spent a lot of time in court explaining his process and findings. That has dwindled as the courts have become more efficient and laboratory processes more standardized and accepted.

“We rarely go to court more than two or three times a year now,” he said. “That’s fine with me. We belong in the lab analyzing evidence.”

Analyzing drugs is not as straight forward as you might think. Clandestine drug chemists are constantly introducing new drugs that may not be on the books yet. Williams’ team evaluates the chemical makeup of the substance and reports that back to law enforcement.

“Once they become aware of the new drug and determine the potential danger of it, law enforcement officers can begin the process of making it a controlled substance,” he said. Williams, who was an industrial chemist before joining the crime lab, said he truly enjoys being able to use his science degree to help police officers.

Williams, who was an industrial chemist before joining the crime lab, said he truly enjoys being able to use his science degree to help police officers.