New lab preps crime scene investigators

Fake maggots. Synthetic blood. Fingerprinting powder.

These are just a few of the supplies in Indiana University Kokomo's newest lab -- the crime lab -- which gives students a chance to learn how to protect and process a crime scene.

"We believe this is how our students can hone their skills before they get to the job market. It will make them more prepared and more marketable," said Kelly Fisher, lecturer in criminal justice and homeland security. "There are a lot of things this regional campus offers that makes our students stand out, like this crime lab."

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Students get hands-on experience in the crime lab at IU Kokomo. Photo by Alisha Referda, IU Kokomo

The lab, installed just weeks before fall semester, is one of three college crime labs in Indiana. Possible careers with this experience include police officer or detective, attorney or judge, crime lab analyst, or crime scene investigator.

And, it's not just for those interested in forensics -- it can benefit students interested in social work, nursing, science, and other fields.

"As a social worker or nurse, you may see something in the course of your work that you need to report," she said. "You want to know how to collect evidence, and how not to contaminate the scene."

Solving simulated crimes in the lab gives students hands-on experience, which junior Dallas Snell appreciates.

"I personally learn a lot better when I get to do things hands-on," said Snell, a cadet with the IU Police Department at Kokomo. "I'm really looking forward to learning about the process of collecting evidence and data. It's an important part of my future career."

During the semester, students will collect evidence at a simulated crime scene, including fingerprints, hair, and other trace evidence. They will examine blood spatter, which could help determine what weapon was used, the trajectory on impact, and potentially, the escape path of the perpetrator. In addition, students will use Luminol with black lights to find where blood was removed to clean up the scene.

Other equipment includes a camera, microscopes, fumigation chambers, fingerprinting software, and crime scene mapping software.

"We try to focus on how you would build a court case, what you would be doing as an investigator to build a solid case for the prosecution," Fisher said. "They will get experience using some of the best, most current equipment on the market to give them some of these scenarios. It gives students an idea of what is involved in this career."

Having a dedicated lab means she can set up a simulation that will take several class periods to solve, rather than having to clean up for another class to use the space. That means students can work on more complicated cases. Fisher plans to end the semester by dividing the class in half, and having each group set up a scenario to try to stump the other group -- including setting up false leads.

She also emphasizes that it is crucial not only to collect evidence, but to protect it, because lives are on the line.

"We talk about the credibility of evidence, and how important collecting it the right way is to someone's life and future," she said.