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'CSI Tampa Bay': Pinellas training center teaches how to find the evidence

LARGO — When Scott Campbell became a police evidence technician in the 1990s, there was no formal training program.

"It was you rolled along with a guy or two, he'd teach you how to do photography and some other stuff … then you'd go out and you winged it," he said.

But the emphasis on physical evidence in police work — lifting fingerprints, matching DNA — has steadily mounted in recent years, Campbell said, as have the expectations of jurors and a public used to watching shows like CSI.

Yet at a time when forensics is becoming more and more integral to the criminal justice system, many departments are coming up against crunched budgets, meaning formal training programs are scarce.

That's why Campbell — whose program is funded through grants by the federal government — takes his job so seriously.

In an unassuming warehouse off Belcher Road in Largo, Campbell, a retired Milwaukee police officer, teaches a three-day forensics class for the National Forensic Science Technology Center.

Law enforcement officials and crime scene technicians come from all over the country to take Campbell's crash course in CSI techniques. Students learn everything from how to properly photograph and document a crime scene to lifting a fingerprint off a golf ball.

"We've gotta start raising our game," Campbell said. "In order to do that, you've gotta have more formal training."

• • •

Anita Smith dusted black powder along the window sill.

She leaned in, close enough to allow the moisture from her breath to hit the surface.

Seconds later, an outline of a fingerprint emerged.

"This is all new to me," said Smith, who lives in Raleigh, N.C.

For the past 24 years, Smith has worked at a lab that analyzes fingerprints for local law enforcement agencies.

But soon, she'll be responsible for going out and getting that data from crime scenes.

She attended one of Campbell's classes in preparation.

"This is very different," she said while practicing techniques during a recent mock burglary investigation. "In the field, you have to think two steps ahead of yourself."

• • •

Campbell's course, which costs nearly $4,000 per student, is offered free of charge through a National Institute of Justice training grant.

Students are required to take a 16-hour online class to participate in the program. Then they get 24 hours with Campbell, who goes over several areas, including DNA, fingerprints, blood work, photography and firearms.

His students come from all different backgrounds.

Some, like Smith, have little field work experience.

Others, like Detective Thomas Moore, are no strangers to police work or collecting evidence.

Moore is a detective with the Tonawanda Police Department in New York state. He's been on the force for a dozen years, and now is responsible for responding to major scenes.

Moore said he was familiar with about 90 percent of the tools Campbell introduced.

But several items, like AccuTrans, a silicone product that can take casts of fingerprints, were new to him; or were things he'd only seen in a catalogue.

"Budgets are tight," Moore said. "The only way to see them in use is a class like this. If I can lift 20 more prints a year, it's worth it."

As a final test, Campbell divides his students into teams and has them put their skills to use by conducting a mock investigation.

In his latest class, he chose burglary as the crime.

"Property crimes are the things that impact more people," Campbell said. "But everything they do here they can apply to a homicide."

Using evidence markers, magnetic powder, flashlights, measuring tape and cameras, the students documented the scene, collected fingerprints and determined how the "burglar" made it inside the home.

After a couple of hours, Campbell brought the students back together. All the groups had collected a lot of evidence, but none had gotten everything.

One group missed a spot of blood planted on a door. Another group didn't see some fingerprints.

"Sometimes it's right in front of us and we don't see it," Campbell said. "This is how we learn."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

'CSI Tampa Bay': Pinellas training center teaches how to find the evidence 03/01/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 1, 2010 10:50pm]

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