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CSI at ACC

Mock crime scene teaches students evidence collection

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena Community College students Xhevalin Marku, left, and Peter Botha document the position of a body at a mock crime scene Tuesday while student Josh Sommerfield records details about the scene.

ALPENA — One victim lay on the floor, a gun near his right hand. The other sprawled in a chair, mouth agape, blood spatter on the wall behind him.

Three students, armed with clipboards, camera, and measuring tapes, stepped carefully over a shell casing, looking for evidence that might tell the story of what had happened.

Their instructor, Larry Thomson, knew exactly what had happened. Four hours of work on his part had turned the stage of Granum Theater on the Alpena Community College campus into a mock crime scene, carefully staged to give students in the criminal justice program an opportunity to practice the investigatory skills they’ve acquired in the classroom as they prepare to exit the program and head toward further training and positions in law enforcement.

The Criminal Investigations class moved through the scene in groups of three or four, heeding reminders from their instructor as they carefully documented the scene. The students took photographs, gathered precise measurements, and labeled evidence to be able, if necessary, to exactly recreate the scene.

Thomson, drawing from his 35 years of experience in law enforcement, gave the students pointers as they worked, urging them to talk to each other and to think creatively to gather the information they needed. The evidence they gather on the job needs to stand up to questioning in court, he reminded them, focusing the students on not only the task at hand but also their futures as law enforcement officers.

A shell casing under a table gave the students pause as they tried to figure out how to accurately document its location with a body in the way of their measurements. Outside-the-box thinking solved the problem: The students threaded the tape measure carefully under the victim’s legs to access their measuring baseline that ran across the center of the room.

Student Peter Botha, of Harrisville, was the photographer for the mock scene. He hopes eventually to work at the federal level of law enforcement, possibly for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Botha appreciated the chance to put into practice the lessons learned in the classroom, where having an instructor with real-world experience has been a highlight.

“He applies all the cases he’s worked on and kind of brings it home for us,” Botha said of Thomson, who heads ACC’s criminal justice program.

Josh Sommerfield, an Alpena resident and future forensic scientist, will someday collect and process evidence in real crime scenes, if all goes according to plan. The mock crime scene challenged the students to stretch beyond their books and prepare for the very real world of law enforcement ahead, he said.

“At the end, he asked if we thought we were missing anything,” Sommerfield said, remembering Thomson’s final instructions and his own mental replay of the semester’s lessons. “You had to go back through everything you’ve learned and try to figure out if you actually got it all.”

Shelby Township resident Xhevalin Marku would like to stay local once he’s begun his law enforcement career, living in the Alpena area if possible. He feels ACC adequately prepared him for the mock crime scene, and for his intended job with the Michigan State Police, as well.

While he felt comfortable investigating the scene on the stage, “at the same time, it was like a new environment. We haven’t done that kind of thing before,” he said, expressing confidence and a hint of wonder at the nearness of the future.

“And now you’re actually doing it,” Botha finished.

MSP 1st Lt. John Grimshaw, commander of the Alpena Post, commended ACC for giving students the opportunity to try out investigative skills while still learning the basics of what it takes to be an officer. Mock crime scenes give future law enforcement officers an idea of the technology and methods used in the field to collect evidence, upon which police investigations hinge.

“That’s ultimately the most important thing: To be able to get a charge and get a conviction out of somebody, we need evidence,” Grimshaw said.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.