Former Columbia College forensics students now with KC Police Lab show current students what CSI is really like.
Monday morning classes can be sleepy and uninspired: the same old teacher going over the same old material.
Not so with the 9 a.m. Senior Seminar in Forensic Science, taught by Barry Langford, chair and instructor of Criminal Justice (CJ) Administration at Columbia College. On a Monday morning in April, Langford invited two Columbia College alumni, Andrea Reed '02, one of the forensic science program’s first graduates, and Nick Carroll '08, both crime scene investigators with the city of Kansas City, Mo., to show the class what crime scene investigators really do.
Both alumni were dressed in navy blue combat pants and KC Police Lab T-shirts and wore utility belts with instruments, no holster. Crime scene investigators, said Reed, do not carry firearms; an armed officer is always supposed to be on scene.
Reed said her brother is a nurse and that her parents "think I'm crazy, wanting to poke around dead bodies. They think I should be nursing and he [my brother] poking [dead people]."
The two investigators then took the class on a wild ride through the real world of crime scene investigation. Unlike the CSI shows, there was not one glittering mansion or murder weapon neatly off to one side of the body. Instead, the alumni showed and described a grueling, filthy, 24/7 job that can involve wading through mountains of garbage to even get to a body, sometimes in less than pristine condition. Not one student looked away, gagged or flushed. Most, in fact, were leaning forward.
"Forensic science," said Reed, "is the application of science to law." This involves fingerprinting the corpse (using black, magnetic and fluorescent powder; super glue, ninhydrin and leuko crystal violet, which makes prints visible), using laser beams to show projectile trajectory ("We get a lot of drive-by shootings," said Reed), luminal and ordinary photography -- sometimes by hanging out of a helicopter unsupported.
Investigators work in pairs, Reed said. One sketches and diagrams the scene, objects and residence while the other combs for evidence. She then showed a slide of a very messy murder, which she turned into an elegant sketch of the entire floor, including the bedroom where the crime had occurred. In that case, five knives, razor blades and about 100 other items were recovered from a room measuring just 15 by 12 feet.
When you go to a crime scene, trust your eyes and the evidence, Carroll added. Police officers or witnesses may have constructed a narrative which the evidence does not corroborate.
Pam Zimmerle, a petite Columbia College forensic science major from Omaha, Neb., will be interning at the KC crime lab this summer. "I came here for this program," she said. "It's what I really want to do." The presentation didn't make her queasy, she said – "I saw much worse in CSI summer camp," where students had to dig up dead pigs.
Langford says CJ graduates regularly find employment or promotion in the nation's law enforcement agencies. He also says the department also regularly has students interning at:
- Boone County Sheriff's Department
- Columbia Police Department
- The county's Juvenile Justice Center
- Missouri State Highway Patrol
- Callaway County Sheriff's Department
- Boone County Medical Examiner
- Boone County CASA program (Court Appointed Special Advocate); CASA volunteers act as advocates for dependent, abused or neglected children
- Audrain County Juvenile office
- Missouri Department of Corrections
- Missouri State Public Defender's office