Photos are a key tool for investigators

Published 8:44 am Monday, May 14, 2012

Column: Guest Column

Our last week of Citizens Academy was Thursday, and we had an interesting presentation by detective Frank Kohl about crime scene investigations. Detective Ben Mortenson was also there for parts and to answer questions.

Kohl explained to us that crime scene investigating is often unlike the several TV shows dedicated to the subject. Locally, they do DNA testing much less because it can take so long and is expensive. And while fingerprints are a huge help while investigating, there’s many times they’re not able to find any or they’re only able to find a partial print.

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Some of the highlights of crime scene investigation include knowing that every person brings something into the scene and every person also takes something from the scene. Kohl said it’s important to get in immediately and take as many photos as possible before evidence is moved or lost.

Hearing his history with photos was interesting, as before digital cameras Kohl took photos using 35 mm film. He said he used to make his bosses mad because he’d have so many photos printed, which they paid photo processors to do. Now, he can take as many as he’d like with his digital camera, but he’s running into a similar problem in that he uses a lot of computer storage. So much storage in fact that Kohl has his own server in the department.

After taking photos it’s important to tag important items with flags or small plastic tents with numbers on them. With certain items like footprints or other important items it’s important to put a measuring device next to the item and photograph it.

While it’s important to preserve evidence at all costs, Kohl said the one thing that trumps that is victim safety. If there’s a victim at a scene an officer isn’t going to think about wrecking evidence.

Kohl also talked about the importance of search warrants and how he has to write them. He said it’s important to be precise with the warrant so the judge approves and so it holds up in court in the future.

Then came the fun part: Kohl had set up a fake crime scene in a room nearby, and we were tasked with taking photos and collecting evidence so we could try to find fingerprints.

He walked us through the various tools we’d need, including the camera, rubber gloves, swabs for fluid samples and more. I was assigned to be the photographer so I was able to be first in the room to get photos before anyone else could tamper with the scene.

While it was fun to take photos of all the “evidence,” it did get a little tedious because so many photos needed to be taken. First of the whole scene, then each individual item, then each individual item again with a numbered plastic tent next to it.

Some of my classmates collected the items that looked like they had fingerprints on them and we headed back to dust for fingerprints. Kohl then showed us a few different powders and brushes they use, and we found quite a few prints (which also had to be photographed).

All in all it was an interesting lesson in a subject we probably all thought we knew a lot about since there are so many TV shows about it. We took just a few minutes looking over our crime scene, but Kohl said there have been times where he’d spend hours and days looking through homes for evidence.


Class is coming to a close

Thursday was our last structured evening of classes for the Citizens Academy. Tonight we’ll graduate in front of the City Council at their meeting, and then all that’s left is to schedule a ride-along with an officer if we so choose. I will definitely be doing a ride-along, and I’ll write another column about it so look for that in the future.

The class has been educational and at the same time entertaining, and I would recommend it to anyone who’s curious about the police department and how it works. One caveat: We were told the class would run from 7 to 9 p.m. each Thursday, but every class ran about a half hour later because we’d get to discussing and asking very detailed questions or the presentations were so in-depth they often ran over. I’d still recommend it, and look to the Tribune for the announcement that the class is being held again. It’s held each year, and about 15 people can take it at a time. Thanks for reading!


Kelli Lageson is the special projects editor at the Tribune. She’s enrolled in a weekly Citizens Academy put on by the Albert Lea Police Department. Email her at