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crime scene photos and why they are so important

Crime Scene Photos and Why They are Important

Crime scene photos are crucial evidence as they serve as a visual representation of the investigation. These photos are able to provide photographic documentation for criminal investigators, who can later use to better explain, show, and demonstrate evidence against a defendant.  These photos can be used to better reconstruct events, identify evidence and lead to solving the case. Crime scene photos can be crucial evidence to refute a future argument the defense may have. Photos can be taken from anyone involved in the case such as the initial officer, detectives, witnesses, victims or even suspects who choose to add an extra layer of documentation themselves. Minor level cases such as simple assaults will most likely be taken by the initial officers with a cellphone, while major cases such as homicides and sexual assaults will have a detective or crime scene technician responsible to take the photos with a professional camera. Victims may have photographic evidence of injuries of past assaults or text messages that can be used to further develop probable cause for an arrest or search warrant. Photos are always encouraged while investigating crimes as seemingly pointless photos may become vital during trial. For instance, if officers take a photo of the defendant with no injuries or markings on the defendant’s face while on scene of a stabbing. The defendant will have a hard time arguing during trial that he was stuck in the face with a brick causing him to “blackout” or requiring him to defend himself with a knife.

Photographing Injuries

crime scene photos and why they are so important. eye injuey
Photographing Injuries

Injuries on scene may not be the full extent of the injury as it may go through stages of progression. The progression of the injury may take minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months in serious cases. It’s not uncommon to show up to a call for service with an individual reporting that they were struck by a blunt object, but all you can see is a red mark. However, as time passes you will start to see the injury swell up and even discolor to a brighter red. There have been numerous times that I have been investigating a crime that involved an injury such as being punched or struck with a blunt object where I initially didn’t observe much more then redness. From the time I arrive until the time I left, there will be a noticeable difference in how the injury presents itself. Blunt force trauma may take minutes or hours to fully swell up and days to turn black and blue. This is why officers and victims are encouraged to take a series of progressive photos to demonstrate the life and significance of the injury sustained to fully capture the intensity of the crime.

The Three (3) levels of Crime Scene Photos

The three (3) levels of photographs officers should take when documenting a crime scene are wide-angle, mid-range, and close-ups. These three variations of photographs are all important and help depict a crime scene. All levels of photographs should be used anytime an officer seeks to document anything of evidentiary value. Crime scene photos should be taken to document injuries, scene surroundings, items, item locations, accidents and anything that may hold evidentiary value

Wide-Angle or Overview Crime Scene Photos

crime scene photos and why they are so important. wide range or overview
Wide-Angle or Overview Crime Scene Photos

These photographs are intended to capture the entire scene or location. Inside these photos, you may be able to see items of evidentiary value such as a firearm in the distance, but are not intended to show any level of detail. These photos are more of an overview of where items are and where the crime scene is located. Of course, the crime and evidentiary value that you will obtain from these photos will determine what photos are worth taking. The distance of how far away an officer should be when taking these photos will depend on the crime scene.

For example, if a deceased victim is located in an obscure part of a forest, law enforcement officers should elect to take an overview photo from either a helicopter or a drone. This will enable them to demonstrate to potential jurors the obstacles and complications law enforcement officers and even the alleged offender would have had reaching that area. Maybe travel by vehicle was impossible and the only way into the area was through a path frequented by ATV’s, which was subsequently used to obtain a search warrant. Using these crime scene photographs, law enforcement would be better able to eliminate potential motions that the defense may try and sneak in.

Mid Range Crime Scene Photos

crime scene photos and why they are so important. midview
Mid Range Crime Scene Photos

These photographs capture objects or evidence in their spatial context, relative to other parts of the of the location. Let’s say we responded to a call for service there was an injury to a victims right forearm as a result of a stabbing. The overall photo will be of the individual including his whole body. The midrange will be of his right arm and some of his body, guiding the audience (Jury) to where the injury was sustained. Mid-rang photographs will be used to help direct juries to where the injury is and will show contextual detail that would not be scene with the overview photos. Let’s say we respond to a car accident, where one of the operators leaves the scene. Undenounced to them, their license plate fell off during the accident and was left at the scene (yes this happens more then you would expect!) The first photograph will be of an overview, capturing street names, stop signs, stop lights, the involved vehicle and anything else relevant to the crash. Next you would move forward to this license place and take a mid-range photo that may show the suspect’s license plate positioned directly underneath the victim’s car or next to a telephone pole.

Close up Crime Scene Photos

crime scene photos and why they are so important upclose evidence
Close up Crime Scene Photos

Close up photos are when you take a full framed picture of the intended evidence to show any important details, even those that may appear minute at the time. You can and should use a ruler, quarter or something else that has a size reference that you can use to demonstrate the size. With the advancement of technology, fine details that may not be visible to the naked eye, such as fibers, fingerprints or small markings can be analyzed long after the investigation is over. Technology is becoming so advanced that officers can now quickly dust over a finger print, snap a picture and then send it in to be analyzed electronically. Of course they will still need to properly collect and store the actual fingerprint to use later in trial if the defense wishes to also question the evidence. These pictures can provide valuable insight into the crime scene and the identity of the perpetrator.

Let’s go back to the example of the victim who was stabbed by a knife and now he went to the hospital for medical attention. Prior to being bandaged you were able to take a close up photo of his wound. Later during your investigation, you are notified that a sizable part of the blade actually broke off inside the victim’s arm and was stuck in there. Of course you can try and match the broken piece (if big enough and still intact) to the suspected knife, but if you look back at the close up picture, you may actually be able to see the metal or a bulge inside the victims skin/wound. Now if you go to trial and are solidifying your case, this may be effective testimonial evidence. It would be powerful to say, this is the broken knife we located on the defendant just one block away and only ten (10) minutes after police responded to the stabbing. Here is the missing piece of the blade taken from the wound of the victim’s arm at the hospital. The defendant stuck the victim with such force and intensity, he broke a piece of hardened metal from the knife. And guess what, you can even see the metal bulging from in his wound here in this picture.  Of course, in this scenario, it’s not the end all be all evidence and the prosecution team can find a way to articulate the injury without the photo, but every piece of evidence, especially visual, can be the key to convincing the jury to convict a defendant.

crime scene photos and why they are so important. front of building

Photographing a Crime Scene - Example

Let me take you through a crime scene and how law enforcement will use photography to help document the crime scene. In this example let’s say there was a home invasion resulting in a homicide, that occurred on the second floor of an  apartment complex. In the process of the altercation, it appears that there is a trail of blood going down the stairs, out the front door and then stops in the middle of the road. The victim was a known high level drug dealer, and inside the apartment, there were narcotics and guns located. After all medical attention and any threats or safety concerns were eliminated, officers will now turn towards their investigation. It appears that there was a getaway car and likely more than one involved suspect so we would extend our crime scene to the outside of the apartment complex.

It is best to progress through the crime scene through a continuous motion stopping at each area or room and going through a series of wide angle, midrange, and close up photos. First, I would start progressing through the three camera distances outside of the apartment.

  • Wide Angle:
    • I would take a photo of the entire apartment itself.
    • Go to the entrance, turn around and take a photo of the view as if you were standing in the doorway.
    • Any parking lots, escape routes, roads or other places of interest
    • Photos with drones if need be
  • Midrange:
    • I would move forward and take a photo of the entrance with the door open.
    • Apartment number/building name
    • Street signs
    • Vehicles of interest
    • Any midrange view of blood spatter, footprints, tire marks or other evidence
    • Pictures of camera locations
  • Close up: full camera view
    • Blood Splatter
    • Foot Prints
    • Tire marks
    • Fingerprints
    • Any other evidence of the crime
Next, I would move inside the building and start documenting the stairway in the same progressive manor.
  • Wide Angle:
    • The entirety of the stairwell including any turns from the entrance.
    • Go to the top of the stairs, turn around and take a picture from a top view
    • The hallway leading towards the victim’s front door.
  • Midrange:
    • Pictures of evidence from a shorter distance, but enough to understand the specifics about where the blood, fingerprints or footprints were located.
  • Close up:
    • Full camera view of fingerprints and foot prints to be sent to the lab
    • Any cluster or pool of blood (Not every spec needs to be independently photographed)
    • Other evidence linking the suspect to the victim, scene, or crime.
Next we would move into the apartment and go through each room with the same sequence in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction.
  • Wide Angle:
    • Of the entire room from each corner of the room and the doorway.
    • If there is no apparent evidence in a room, it is best to still photograph it from the wide angle view and move on. You would be surprised what has been later observed in these photographs that were missed or useless to investigators at the time of the incident.
  • Midrange:
    • more towards any evidence such as
      • Victim
      • blood,
      • fingerprints
      • moved items
      • clothing
      • weapons such as guns, knives or blunt objects
      • The weapons and narcotics the victim possessed.
  • Close up:
    • Close ups of any item deemed to have evidentiary value.

As the scene unfolds, we will better know what evidence we want to photograph or if there is any other area we need to move to, such as locating the vehicle the suspect jumped into when they fled the scene.

crime scene photos and why they are so important. evidence marker

Crime Scene Photo's Conclusion

This is a tenuous process that can be extremely time consuming depending on the crime scene and circumstances. It is always best to photograph any item or evidence before touching, moving or collecting samples. There are a number of exceptions such as the item posing a safety hazard (Knife, loaded gun) when an officer first responds to the scene and there are multiple people around. The officer may elect to secure the weapon so they can actively investigate the crime in a safe manor. Next would be uncontrollable issues such as pouring rain when you locate a knife with blood still on the blade. Of course, there are an endless number of circumstances that may fit those criteria, and officers will have to document the case by other means or take a photograph of the location at a later time with an explanation of its importance.

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By Branden

Branden is a Police Lieutenant who has investigated numerous crimes. He has written and executed multiple search warrants, conducted various protective sweeps, pat frisks and exit orders. He has been involved in numerous police vehicle chases, fights, disturbances, foot pursuits, suspect/hostage negotiations and felony stops. He is trained with an assortment of weapons. He has spoken with countless victims, witnesses and suspects and is using his experience to better protect our communities and loved ones by sharing his knowledge through his writings.

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