"Today we're going to dispel the myths of CSI," said Wenda Alvarez, President/CEO of the San Diego Police Foundation, to a room of about 75 people gathered at San Diego police headquarters for the event.
Police Chief William Lansdowne said that with progresses in technology, within the next decade, a suspect will not be able to exit a room without leaving some kind of trace behind that can link them to the scene.
After an orientation to the department by Supervising Criminalist Jennifer Shen and an address by Lansdowne, participants were walked through a mock crime scene where they observed a young woman who was found murdered in her apartment. They were then briefed about evidence found on scene. Using a police K-9 demonstration, the group then witnessed the arrest of two "suspects" at a mock traffic stop.
Participants were then escorted into the actual SDPD crime labs to meet the staff that spends countless hours pouring over evidence to solve crimes in San Diego County. Participants assisted with examining trace evidence, removing and analyzing hairs and fibers taken from the victim's sweater and matching them to samples taken from the two suspects. Though the process of trace evidence analysis may vary in how helpful it is to solving crimes, sometimes it can almost conclusively link a suspect to a crime scene.
For example, criminalist Tanya DuLaney said that when her department analyzed evidence from the Danielle van Dam murder case in 2002, they were able to make several matches of Danielle's hair, her dog's hair and carpet fibers to then suspect David Westerfield, who was eventually convicted of the 7-year-old's murder.
Participants then assisted fingerprint examiners in analyzing latent (meaning "unknown") prints found at the crime scene. Print examiners may spend hours analyzing and comparing a single fingerprint for a match.
Even if a print is not found to be a match, it is entered in a computer database, which could later link a suspect to a crime.
Experts then introduced participants to the process of analyzing firearm evidence, and finally the audience got to hear the final results of the investigation.
The organizer of the event, the San Diego Police Foundation, is a nonprofit 501 (c) 3 that was formed in 1998 under then Police Chief Jerry Sanders. Since its beginning, the foundation has awarded grants totaling more than $2 million that have gone toward purchasing necessary equipment and programs not covered by the city's budget.
"Inside SDPD: Crime Scene Investigation" is one of several programs and events the foundation runs throughout the year. It also runs a program where the public gets a glimpse into the daily routine of officers, and a "Behind the Headlines" fund-raising luncheon held in September.
The events are part of an outreach effort to promote understanding between officers and the public. According to a statement by the foundation, often this lack of information about why officers do what they do "breeds misunderstanding, distrust and disrespect, which can create tension and jeopardize the personal safety of citizens, police officers and suspects."
They also help the effort to revitalize SDPD. The ailing department recently received a shot in the arm with a new contract signed in April that will give officers a roughly 9 percent pay increase over the next fiscal year, making officer pay more competitive and hopefully assisting with recruitment and retention problems that have been plaguing SDPD in recent years.
According to statistics provided at the event, police officer staffing is down about 10 percent from full force, with a loss of about 15 officers per month, many of which are seasoned veterans leaving the department.
Recent police academies still cannot graduate enough new recruits to keep pace.
For more information about police foundation programs, visit www.sdpolicefoundation.org or call (858) 453-5060.