Det. Jan Ryan (far left) details the operations of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Evidence Collection Unit to members of the Citizens Police Academy. (The Dagger/Mark Elloff)
When it’s a bad scene, Jan Ryan knows there’ll be a change of clothes and a trash bag waiting for him on the back porch.
Ryan said his family has come to understand his work as one of the five detectives of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Evidence Collection Unit. The detectives investigate scenes of crimes and death spanning the full range–and horror–of the human experience.
Sometimes that scene involves a body weeks or even months old. Sometimes that scene is 30 feet in the air; that was the case in a recent death another investigator worked in which a tree-cutter was crushed by a falling limb.
The worst of those scenes are the type of thing Ryan and his family would rather not have tracked inside their home. Thus, the change and the trashbag.
The unit, part of the Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigation Division, must attempt to make sense of each scene they work, carefully preserving evidence and helping criminal investigators determine what happened, how it happened and who might be responsible. Ryan detailed the unit’s methods to members of the Sheriff’s Office Citizens Police Academy at the agency’s evidence collection facility in Forest Hill Tuesday night.
Providing 24-hour coverage seven days a week, including holidays, the unit is tasked with collecting and developing all evidence at the scene of a crime, unattended death, or other incident the Sheriff’s Office investigates. Key in this process, Ryan said, is preserving a chain of custody of each piece of evidence and establishing control of the crime scene while the investigation is ongoing.
Evidence can take many forms, from the classic fingerprints (the fingerprint dust the unit uses is volcanic ash, Ryan said) to photos, blood splatter, video and audio recordings, witness interviews, and more. Even the bugs and larvae which have taken up residence at scenes of older deaths can provide important clues, no matter how small.
“Everyone takes something in [to a crime scene],” Ryan said. “And everyone takes something out.”
At its facility, the unit is equipped to analyze video and audio, and has a link to the FBI’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Drug and DNA evidence is sent to the Maryland State Police crime lab for analysis, but the facility includes an individual tasked with examining computers for evidence. The unit can also work with witnesses to develop computerized composites of suspect descriptions, a process which can take as little as 30 minutes, compared to two to three hours for traditional sketches.
Of course, modern crime scene analysis has been overshadowed by shows such as “CSI.” Part of Ryan’s presentation outlined the differences between the job in real life and the job as seen on the show, where “crimes aren’t solved in an hour” and “no one ever questions the chain of custody”—what he called the “Hollywood School of Forensics.”
“Our jobs have become popular because of TV shows like ‘CSI,’” said Ryan, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office since 1990 and with the evidence collection unit since 1998. “But that has given false negatives to people because not everything is like it is in the show.”
Still, the graphic nature of the unit’s job was made clear to the academy class through a series of crime scene photos. Some photos displayed bodies which had been decomposing for months, while one showed the remains of a man who had taken his life with a very old and very powerful rifle.
As with other units across the Sheriff’s Office, the members of the evidence collection unit keep an eye on each other’s well-being. Ryan said they also find their own ways to blow off steam—he said he enjoys boating, among other hobbies—and have the support of their loved ones. Even if that support, sometimes, takes the form of a trash bag.
“My family is very understanding,” Ryan said.
Victim Services Unit
When she teaches a class, Debbie Bradley asks the cops in attendance how many of them have had training in delivering death notifications and working with victims of a crime. Perhaps one or two will raise their hands, she said.
When she asks how many of them have had to deliver death notifications, she said nearly every hand in the room goes up.
“It’s quite frightening, because if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can harm someone for the rest of their lives,” she said.
Victim advocacy is an often-overlooked portion of the criminal justice process—Bradley comprises the entire Sheriff’s Office Victim Services Unit, and is the only such advocate in Harford County.
Bradley provides an array of support services to those who have been touched by a crime or other tragedy, including notifying individuals of a loved one’s death, providing crisis intervention, supplying them with information, and conducting follow-up visits.
She also outlines to them the victim’s bill of rights, which includes: being treated with respect and dignity; the right not to speak to a defense attorney; to be kept up-to-date on the status of their case; to be in the courtroom during legal proceedings, if they are not expected to testify; and to avail themselves of financial assistance, counseling and support groups.
Among those rights is the chance to provide a victim impact statement in court, what Bradley called “the victim’s voice.” In some cases, that statement has garnered tougher sentences for convicted criminals, she said.
“There’s never closure for victims, it [the crime] has changed who they are,” she said. “But it helps in their healing process to stand up and tell their offender, ‘this is what you did to me.’”
Bradley started out as a florist, eventually working as a paralegal before studying criminal justice. She has worked as a victim advocate with the Sheriff’s Office since 1998.
In that time, she said she has seen understanding and support of victim advocacy grow. But law enforcement officers and the public in general still need more education on the needs and rights of victims.
“We have come a long way in 20 years, but we have a long way to go,” she said.
Next Week: The Public Information Office and Administrative Services Division.