Rush into a crime scene and you may destroy the tread marks the suspect left in the dirt. Handle a glass carelessly and you can mar the fingerprints left on it. Fail to notice a closet’s false back wall and you could leave behind suitcases of hidden cash. Seal a blood-soaked sock into a plastic bag and your evidence may mold before it reaches the crime lab.
The skill, knowledge, care, and precision of an evidence team can make or break a case. “If you mishandle a piece of evidence, it’s someone’s life. It is justice served or not served,” said Kari Shorr, an instructional systems design specialist for the FBI’s Evidence Response Team (ERT) Training Unit. “If these teams don’t do their jobs correctly, the impact on the back end is overwhelming.”
The FBI trains its evidence collection teams to be the best in the world. ERT Basic is where that training begins.
Inside what looks like an airplane hangar is a classroom with 26 students from FBI field offices across the country. Some are special agents. Others are intelligence analysts, forensic accountants, and computer experts. They are all here to learn how to process a crime scene—document it and gather and package the evidence—so the experts at the FBI Laboratories in Quantico, Virginia, and Huntsville, Alabama, can assess the evidence for forensic information. Everything they do has to be able to stand up to the scrutiny of a judge and a jury.
After taking an intensive online course, they will spend five days here. Some of the time will be in lectures, but most is spent on practical exercises that will test what they have learned and prepare them to take the skills back into the field to support the evidence response teams that deploy from every FBI field office.
Because every crime scene is unique—think about Unabomber’s 6×12 foot cabin and then the 845-mile-wide debris field after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103—the teams learn an adaptable, iterative process and a set of fundamental skills. This includes when to call in specialists like forensic canines, dive teams, or bomb technicians.