KINGSTON, R.I. – April 25, 2012 – It looked like one of the most serious crime scenes in Rhode Island history, with 32 law enforcement officers moving carefully around the house looking for clues to multiple murders and other crimes in eight rooms. Vehicles from the West Warwick Crime Scene Unit, Johnston Police Crime Scene Unit, Town of Glocester Emergency Services Command Center, and Warwick Police Department Forensic Investigation Unit surrounded the building.
And yet, this was no real crime scene. It was a rich learning environment at the Union Fire District Training Center in South Kingstown, where the crime scenes were constructed in the center’s concrete house.
For a full day the eight crime scenes became learning laboratories for law enforcement officers enrolled in criminal investigation courses offered by the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island. The day after the cops investigated, gathered and processed evidence from the scenes, Union firefighters set the scenes afire. The burned crime scenes then became interactive classrooms for arson investigators and police.
The four-credit criminal investigation courses are offered each semester at URI, and for this session all but two officers are from Rhode Island. The courses cover crime scene preservation, search, collection and transmission of evidence, and specialized techniques relating to firearms, arson, sexual assault and homicide.
At the Union Fire District training center, one room featured a crime of passion with a “female body” bound to a bed and profanities painted on the wall. A lamp had been knocked over and blood stained the floor. An ax protruded through a wall.
Another scene depicted a breaking and entering during which the homeowner was surprised. One crime scene showed that suspects had broken into “Tim’s Tax Consulting Service.” Investigators found a “male body” tied to a chair with duct tape covering his mouth.
“This group has done very well in the coursework,” said Dennis Hilliard, director of the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory and co-coordinator of the URI Forensic Science Partnership. “You have to remember that these are cops, not scientists, yet they are diligent and committed to learning scientific investigation.”
Woonsocket Police Sgt. Kevin Sanford said the course is demanding and worthwhile. “As a sergeant, I am on call for crimes that are simulated here, so this is very helpful. This exercise gives us true-life crime scenes. At our scene, there are probably 50 pieces that we will have to bring back to the lab.”
Rhode Island State Police Det. Matthew McGuire, said he has been on the road the last seven years and the course has provided him with a methodological approach to crime scene investigation.
“The entire course stresses the scientific method in crime investigation and it gives my classmates and me a great baseline,” McGuire said.
Glenn Young, the Prudence Island public safety officer for the Town of Portsmouth’s Police Department, said the class and exercise at the Union Fire District training center have been very helpful.
“I have a unique position on Prudence Island because I work by myself,” Young said. “This gives me a sense of what our Portsmouth officers will be walking into when they arrive to investigate. I can give them facts that will aid them in their response.”
While the hands-on-training at the crime scenes and in the class is important, he said there is an even more important component.
“Just by working with all of these other committed law enforcement officers, I have developed great relationships, and now I know if I have any questions, I can call any one of these individuals,” said the former geologist who patrols an island that has about 120 year-round residents and up to 3,000 summer visitors.