Except for law-enforcement personnel, the primary mission of most of the nation’s emergency first responders traditionally has been to save lives, with a secondary emphasis on minimizing damages and reducing property losses. A third mission, if and when appropriate, is to focus on preservation of the crime scene. However, the national Incident Command System (ICS – mandated by one of several inter-related presidential homeland-security directives) is now being implemented by more and more state and local law-enforcement agencies, and that creates a new opportunity to redress an imbalance in response functions that in the past has caused a number of serious problems.

More specifically, the imbalance has inadvertently caused a large number of crime scenes to fall prey to contamination and disruption caused – unintentionally, it should be emphasized – by various first responders (other than law-enforcement personnel) who also are at the crime scene carrying out their own important duties. The result, all too often, is a chaotic situation that can, and does, easily translate into the loss or destruction of evidence, delays in suspect identification, and, eventually, a reduction in courtroom convictions.

Regardless of who is in charge of the response, there is a clear need in the immediate aftermath of significant catastrophic events to stabilize the threat environment through some combination of firefighting, EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) tasks, and decontamination of the area, as well as the near-simultaneous provision of emergency medical treatment for victims.

Lost Opportunities = Additional Victims

In the performance of these extremely important tasks, though, the gathering and preserving of reliable forensics evidence is frequently an operational afterthought, and the opportunity is lost forever. Unfortunately, when an incident situation involves major offenders – e.g., terrorist groups, arsonists, killers, and rapists – the delayed investigations and lost convictions translate directly into a greatly increased potential for future additional crimes. When that happens, the probable result is that many more innocent people will become victims of the same individual or group.

The mission balance that must be achieved by law-enforcement personnel – who under the ICS rules are most likely to be responsible for incident-management at the scene of a major disaster – falls somewhere between, on the one hand, providing maximum freedom of movement for medical and other response personnel tending to the needs of victims and, on the other hand, the investigative priorities of law-enforcement agencies seeking to apprehend the person or persons responsible for the incident. The initial and often most important of those priorities is to preserve as uncontaminated a crime scene as is possible under what are almost always extremely difficult circumstances.

Throughout the nation’s history, and even more so today – when large-scale disasters are more frequent than in the past – the crime-scene calculus usually, and understandably, has been developed almost solely in terms of the immediate needs of the victims of the crime. However, as law-enforcement officers well know, many if not all criminals – as used here, that term includes terrorists and terrorist groups – repeat the same type of crime unless and until they are stopped. For that reason alone, focusing exclusively on the needs of immediate victims and ignoring the equally compelling requirement for a quick and thorough crime-scene investigation overlooks another important priority – namely, the rights of future potential victims.

In other words, in certain situations, first-responder priorities possibly should tip more in favor of crime-scene preservation because the very nature of the crime indicates a probable repeat offender – and, therefore, the likelihood that there may well be many additional victims in the future who will be spared only if the criminal or criminal group is caught.

An Ethical Balancing of Priorities

It would be both unethical and immoral – and, usually, unnecessary – to deny emergency support to victims who are in immediate need of medical care, regardless of the potentially detrimental impact upon evidence. Moreover, an assessment of the specific facts that might later prove critical – e.g., whether certain windows were open or closed, where the trashcan or empty bottle was found, whether a particular door was locked or unlocked–is often not known in advance, but becomes clear only much later, as and when the investigation gathers momentum.

In short, finding the optimum balance between an immediate additional risk to victims’ lives and limbs, as opposed to preserving evidence for later forensics analysis, is never easy – but understanding that this is an important issue that should be addressed is probably a good place to start.

In the words of Lieutenant Michael Zimmerman of the New Jersey State Police, “The advent of ICS into law-enforcement matters” requires an open dialogue between law-enforcement personnel and EMS and other medical providers to ensure that the police “can still catch their man.”  If history is any guide, effective preservation of the crime scene that leads to early apprehension and conviction of a terrorist, arsonist, or serial rapist ultimately will save numerous other potential victims from what are essentially preventable follow-on crimes.

For that reason, and without in any way ignoring immediate medical priorities, it is not only appropriate but mandatory that, as law-enforcement personnel continue to adjust to the new ICS mandate, they discuss with their fellow first responders the critical importance, to achieve the long-term goal of promoting public safety, of taking reasonable care to preserve the initial crime scene.

J. Michael Barrett

J. Michael Barrett is director of the Center for Homeland Security & Resilience, an adjunct scholar with the Lexington Institute, and a former director of strategy for the White House Homeland Security Council. Serving as a Naval Intelligence Officer in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, he worked on a variety of programs aimed at defeating terrorists overseas before transitioning to homeland security and developing core strategies and policies enabling a risk-based posture for federal, state, and local efforts. His recent work includes authoring Lexington’s “Future of the Power Grid” series. A former Fulbright Scholar, author or co-author of two books, many White House, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security strategies, and dozens of terrorism and homeland security articles, he also has been a frequent national security guest on television programs including ABC, Bloomberg, CNN, CNBC, Fox News, and Nightline. He can be reached at mbarrett@security-resilience.org.

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