Divers and Evidence Part 4: Avoid Screwing it Up. Like We Did.

*If you’re just joining us, this post is part of an ongoing series that examines the issues around public safety divers and evidence dives. To get the most out of this post, I highly recommend you first read the intro post right here , part 1 here, part 2 right here, and part 3 right here.

This all seems like a lot, doesn’t it?

I would be lying to you if I said “it’s not.”

But…

It is completely achievable with some work.

As long as you’re willing to make the choice to start somewhere.

You have to want to change… To be better.

I would know… because my team lived it all from complete failure to undeniable success.

From a bunch of Mediocre yahoo’s that just jumped in the water and hoped for the best…

To being one of the primary teams in a multi-county Dive Task Force that regularly answers calls from agencies like the Port Authority of NY & NJ Police, the Coast Guard, and even the FBI.

Instead of telling you how we walked our journey… I want to show you.

I’m going to tell you about the time when we got it right…

And the time when we got it so very wrong.

Let’s start with the time when everything came off the rails in a bad, bad way.

Some details have been changed because of the still open case…

But we’re talking about an evidence call that happened quite a few years ago. 

Before we knew anything about how to do this right

But also nothing about how to do it wrong, either. 

The evidence call that started it all

We were called to a riverbank where a suspect had potentially disposed of a knife used in a recent violent crime. 

The best information we were working off of was an individual closely matching the description of the primary suspect, being seen at the riverbank shortly before being stopped by police.

The individual denied any involvement, so the knife was hoped to be a primary means of tying the individual to the crime. 

Looking back on it now, we were so excited to be diving for “evidence.”

But under that excitement… We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. 

It took an hour or so to cart all our gear through the woods, to the water’s edge, where everything was set up. 

Since we were pretty new at this whole “evidence” deal, we deployed divers and started searching.

After two hours, with nothing found, this was starting to look like a “no winner”.

While we were working, both our people and other agencies’ people came to the water’s edge to chat or be nosy… 

This was relatively high-profile so at some points the place was crawling with people.

And that’s when it happened.

“Hey, what are we looking for again?”

The response… “a knife”

The gawker looks down at his feet where the tall grass had been absolutely flattened by foot traffic. 

Then he says…

“Well, there’s a knife right here. Is that it?”

Right there, flattened into the mud, was the item we were looking for.

And the entire area around it was so destroyed by the stampede of people that any trace evidence or footprints were non-existent.

Had we done our proper site survey and mapping, and maintained the scene properly… things would have been very different.

That case is still open.

Let’s just say we learned a lot that day…

And we also realized that we owed it to those who trusted us, to get better. So that never happened again.

Growth is what matters

Fast forward a bunch of years… again keeping this vague because of open investigations…

And the team is called to a drowning. 

The facts related to us were two people were swimming, one went under and never resurfaced. 

The remaining swimmer got to shore and called 9-1-1, where he told the dispatcher that he searched for his friend for over an hour before calling. 

This was clearly going to be a recovery from the jump but it seemed like a standard drowning. Right?

Well, remember I said we made the choice to get better?

That choice sent us to specialized training, where we were taught how to do the job right.

One of the things we learned was… “it’s always a crime scene until determined otherwise.”

This time, we were Prepared.

Just like the first time, we arrived on scene and got our gear together.

Only this time… we approached it as a crime scene from the start. 

By this point, someone on shore had spotted the victim in six-ish feet of water (visibility was good enough). 

Police on scene tell us it’s just a drowning… go in and get the guy so we can all go home. 

We say “sure, just let us do a few things first. It will only take a few minutes.”

We selected our entry point a good 30 feet from where the swimmers entered and exited, so as to not contaminate that spot.

While the divers kitted up, scene sketches were prepared, logs were created, coordinates taken and the scene was mapped.

The divers (who are now trained underwater criminal investigation divers) entered the water equipped with cameras and evidence collection kits.

Because these divers were Prepared (and well trained) they mapped and videoed the entire scene around the victim, before ever approaching the body.

During that survey, the divers (on comms) reported to topside that the shallow bottom near shore looked recently disturbed. Weeds were torn up, sand pushed aside, etc.

Not out of the ordinary if the other swimmer was searching for his buddy. 

Regardless, the observations were noted and documented.

Having completed their outward scene assessment, the divers approached the body to conduct a detailed survey and documentation of the position, appearance, etc. 

And right here is where all our preparation and training paid off in a huge way.

“Diver 1 to topside… the victim’s face is all torn up. He has obvious injuries to his mouth and nose that look recent.”

Turns out, they weren’t swimming at all. 

They were wading in the lake when they started arguing. That argument escalated to a fist fight in the shallow end of the lake… 

And one of the fighters ended up dead.

That entire crime scene was in the water.

The “disturbed bottom” that the divers observed wasn’t from searching… it was from their fight.

Because we had learned from our previous error many years before, and decided that we wanted to leave Mediocre Diver far behind…

We were able to present a very clean and well-prepared crime scene report to the prosecutor, complete with untainted video evidence, sketches, measurements, and observations.

Had we just listened to the first police officers on scene… we likely would have ruined that entire outcome. 

But, because we were Prepared Divers, we knew what had to be done without being told or asked to do it.

The experience and skills we brought to the scene changed the entire outcome.

The reality we operate in is that many first line law enforcement officers aren’t trained in investigations under water. 

So, even though they may be trained and skilled investigators, there are times where the Prepared Diver’s expertise will be the deciding factor.

That’s our job… our role. 

We know the water… we know currents… we know what happens when someone touches the bottom in silty conditions… we understand search patterns… we can “see with our hands” in zero visibility…

Land investigators rarely have to worry about their evidence suddenly moving because of poor fin control or a change in tides…

They’ve never had to hover over their evidence with skill, to avoid kicking up silt and blocking all light.

That, my friend, is why the evidence collection trained public safety diver is at the pinnacle of their craft.

The environment that prevents many others from entering is our comfort zone…

We are comfortable there. We know it’s rules, we know how to function, and we have all the gear and training to survive.

And when we are Prepared we also have the skills to properly collect evidence so that it improves a criminal case… not jeopardizes it.

The perfect combination of two skill sets earned through hard work and the choice to be a professional.

Be so good they can’t ignore you.

Steve Martin

That time has come.

There is a crossroads coming…

And a choice to make.

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