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CSI: Halifax 

Halifax forensics vs. Hollywood forensics. Halifax forensics vs. Hollywood forensics. Hot on the trail of the truth.

Of course this simplistic generalization is not wholly without challenge. Especially given that these are hardly gentle times we live in. For some like Rob Furlong, there exists another category, the sort most of us don’t want to get: the bad news call. Over the past few years, these types of calls have been Furlong’s bread-and-butter. And in several cases the subject of the call has been murder.

That Furlong maintains his composure when the rest of us would more likely than not, puddle, has a lot to do with the fact that he is detective constable Robert Furlong, forensic identification technician and explosive disposal technician, and member of the chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear teams. And, in the jaunty opinion of Halifax Police constable and communications officer Mark Hobeck, “our CSI-extraordinaire; our Gil Grissom.”

For those who have somehow missed TV’s herds of cash-cow “howdunnits,” CSI is one of several TV shows in which crime investigators, collecting and examining evidence, use cutting-edge forensic tools to solve cases. CSI, which began the swing away from “whodunnits,” has ranked as TV’s number one scripted series—verified by the Nielsen ratings—for the past three years. In Canada, according to a recent Globe and Mail business section article, TV’s top fall hits place CSI in top spot, and its two spin-off series, CSI: Miami and CSI: New York, in third and seventh place respectively.

Taking courage and wing from CSI and its franchise siblings’ amazing popularity, similar series have appeared, Crossing Jordan, House and Bones, to name three. They are slick. Flashy. And very hi-tech. On the other hand, Halifax Regional Police’s Forensic Identification Section operates out of the singularly unflashy McKinnon Building—a squat, red-bricked structure that houses Police headquarters on Gottingen Street. About 12 officers make up the section.

I arrange to meet Furlong for an interview and facilities tour to discern how forensic investigation fiction TV is influencing viewers. Some fans of forensic TV dramas do realize that Hollywood’s re-imaginings of police forensics has more in common with fashion runways and perfume commercials than with genuine evidence collecting. But surely it stands to reason that CSI dramas would share something with actual law enforcement forensic practices. The hope is that Furlong’s revelations will go some way to separate what is real from what is not. And what’s common to both.

Waiting on a long, blond, wooden pew facing the entrance to reception in the Gottingen Street station for Furlong to appear, I pass the time imagining what the person about to emerge from one of the room’s four interior doors will look like. The die has been cast by constable Hobeck’s compliment. It’s not a stretch, then, to surmise that Furlong will prove to be a Grissom clone, somewhere in his mid-50s, with wavy, brushed back, salt-and-pepper hair and a close-cropped beard, walking briskly, bandy-legged, toward the visitor pew. In “Casual Friday” civvies, he probably wouldn’t seem at all out of place with the service staff working the customer counter in Lee Valley Tools. That image is quickly jarred from its fantasy moorings when a door opens and Furlong strides in. Unlike his TV counterpart, Furlong is 44 years old, six feet, two inches tall, gym-fit, bald with a military-trim moustache—and he is wearing HRP blues. It’s to be the first of many stark discrepancies between TV and reality to come. (Furlong explains in response to “No casuals? Or tailored suits like the CSI: Miami and CSI: New York model?” that “We wear standard police uniforms because it readily identifies us as police officers at a scene.” Business suits? “For court, got at any place that sells one. Moores, Tip Top.”)

With the sweep of an arm, Furlong gestures toward a door. He taps a numerical access sequence onto the keypad of a code box and in seconds we step into a dimly lit stairwell. Indirect lighting, about ankle height, casts just enough illumination to ensure safe footing up a set of wide risers. At the second floor, we walk into an area, this time uniformly bright, which is parcelled off into the General Investigation Section offices and the detectives’ open-air workstations. A wall alongside our route is billboarded with information notices and a photographic gallery of notable police officers from the past.

We take a right turn into a lengthy corridor the colour of light mocha ice cream. Paneless office doors intermittently break up the bland homogeneity of the walls. Offices are flagged with large letter-envelope-sized cards flanking the doors. These identify what policing activity is going on behind closed doors and lists the occupants. Nowhere to be seen are the elegantly hip and sophisticated glass, steel and chrome interiors that are so much the look of CSI work places: CSI’s cool blue smoked glass interiors, CSI: Miami’s opulent honey-colour glass interiors featuring sun-filtering blinds that cast stunning geometric patterns, and CSI: New York’s mostly off-white spacious interiors, in direct contrast to NYC’s roiling kaleidoscope clutter. The difference is driven home when Furlong opens the door tagged Forensic Identification Section.

At first glance, it is obvious that unless the Sultan of Dubai suddenly takes up underwriting police forensics departments, what appears before us more than likely represents the norm for the majority of the world’s police forces. The Halifax Regional Police’s FIS department consists of three windowless rooms. The outer room is a congested area of office cubicles, walled into form with padded cloth dividers, office equipment and a computer fingerprint station. Two adjacent, claustrophobia-inducing, rooms serve as a photographic processing lab and a space for the investigators’ workstations. Tying these all together is an overriding monochromatic shade of dark denim blue.

Furlong leads the way to his modest office cubicle in the outer room. As we slip past the computer fingerprint station—a carthorse in comparison to the fancy-schmancy thoroughbred TV machines—he smiles.

“I always like where they put two fingerprints up and they merge. I have yet to see that. New updated gear’s always nice to have,” he says, taking a seat behind the semi-surround of his cubicle’s workstation. “Would speed the process a little faster. But I mean, the end result’s the same. We just don’t get,” says, his moustache upturning, riding a grin, “the same scripts where a case is solved in an hour.”

CSI high-tech machismo and “neo-psychic visions into walls, bodies and bullet holes that help explain a crime” may be coming, but for now, with tight policing budgets keeping new device expenditures in check, FIS evidence collection routines remain fixed in time-tested techniques developed in the discipline’s past.

Historians suggest that forensics got its start in the 700s, when the Chinese began using fingerprints for clay sculpture and document identification. Formal classification of their system didn’t exist. This was left to France’s Francois Demelle who, in 1609, published the first treatise on systematic document examination.

In 1784, a felon in Lancaster, England, was convicted of murder on the basis of a ripped edge of paper found in his pistol, which matched a piece of paper in his pocket. This stands as the first on-the-record use of physical-evidence-matching to solve a crime. In 1835, Scotland Yard policeman Henry Goddard figured out how to use bullet comparisons to collar a killer. In 1891, an Austrian examining magistrate named Gross published a book entitled Criminal Investigation. It was the first comprehensive description of the uses of physical evidence.

In 1984, forensic science took its most astonishing leap forward in effectiveness when English scientist Sir Alec Jeffery came up with a DNA profiling test. Two years later, it worked, determining which of a pair of suspects in custody was guilty of killing two young girls found dead in the English Midlands. The case became the first usage of DNA profiling to convict a guilty party and, conversely, to exonerate an innocent person. It wasn’t flashy like CSI gimcrackery, but it was effective.

“I’ve watched CSI probably a total of 20 minutes,” says Furlong. “A bit of one show, bit of another. Not at all real. I understand what they’re trying to do, but it’s very Hollywood.” Lest you think this is a solitary opinion, the officer-in-charge of HRP’s FIS, sergeant Colleen Kelly—a sharp-witted, trim woman with straight blond hair pulled back in a ponytail—says she watches, clicker in hand, muttering derisively, “As if,” and “Not likely.” As for the actresses in high heels chasing suspects, she sniggers, “I can barely run in my boots.”

At actual crime scenes shown on TV newscasts, the on-site forensic team is suited up in white, paper-like Tyvek blend coveralls, with hoods, booties and latex gloves. TV’s CSIs wear the latex gloves but opt out of the forensic suits. Obviously, emoting and product-placed fashion trumps the potential for case destroying cross-contamination of trace evidence.

“We wear them because trace evidence is important,” says Furlong. “You don’t want to be leaving your own fibres or hairs, whatever, at the scene, right? Also you don’t want to be taking evidence from the scene. That’s why we wear the suits.” They also wear dust masks when dusting for prints. At homicide scenes, Kelly says, officers wear full-face shield masks. And when poking around toxically perilous scenes, they wear special chem-bio-rad hazard suits.

The FIS crime scene drill runs like this. The first officer on the scene calls in the event. Depending on the degree of the crime, Kelly will send out two to four investigators. If the crime is sizable and complex (e.g., an arson-homicide), an imposing vehicle called the mobile command bus will be dispatched along with the FIS van. The bus is outfitted with a kitchen and a command office to handle assignments and regroupings and provide on-site refuge for crews who may be working investigations for 24-hours. There are no Hummers.

In the meantime, the first officer on the scene cordons off a restricted perimeter with lines of yellow police tape. This secures and protects the scene’s trace evidence, which FIS technicians will collect, preserve, package and document with video and still photography. Before entering the crime scene, Furlong says, he interviews the first officer on the scene for his or her preliminary reading of the situation.

“Then I’d talk to the witnesses,” he says. “You want to know everything before you go in, what’s going on, or what may have been touched, so you can focus on certain areas.” Ideally, key elements of the crime are established, perhaps the identity of the victim or a suspect. Once in the crime scene, the entire site is videotaped, then still photographed mid-range from different angles to prevent evidence from remaining hidden by an obstruction before moving onto evidence close-ups. “The photography is to tell a story of what you’re seeing at the scene, starting from the beginning all the way through. It collects evidence as it is found so it can be referred to at a later date in court.” Flashlights (as seen on CSI) are used to search and to sweep surfaces. Furlong fetches a flashlight and shines its beam level with his desktop. Under fluorescent lighting, the desktop looks pristine. Not so when exposed to the added cross light. “It’s called graze lighting. If you take a flashlight and shine it across a surface, you’ll see more than just looking at it. Maybe a hair. Little fibres from the suspect. Footwear impressions that you normally wouldn’t see.” He deftly picks up a minute red thread, unnoticed till now, and wipes away a number of tiny, now visible, specks.

In every situation requiring a FIS investigation, the scene is meticulously examined from point of entry to point of exit. Then, in grid fashion, the FIS team works out from the crime core, collecting and packaging every bit of evidence, no matter how insignificant. A sketch of the site is drawn on graph paper, noting the position of the body, if the case is a homicide, or locations of key evidence. In the case of homicide, when the on-site medical examiner has determined death and all evidence has been collected from around the body, the corpse is removed and transported to the morgue (in Halifax, the pathology lab is next to the VG Hospital). There, the investigators strip off the victim’s clothing layer by layer, searching the garments for evidence. Fingerprints and palm prints are taken. Autopsies are performed.

When the crime scene investigation is completed, the collected evidence is usually delivered to the Gottingen Street station lab for general processing; if the material involves DNA, it goes to the RCMP lab. It’s at this point that a yawning gulf between Tinseltown’s depiction of police forensics investigation and the real thing appears—proving irrevocably that “true life makes bad TV.”

No space-age techno-labs encased in glass partitions or anything approximating that style exist in the Gottingen Street station. True to form, just plain white lab rooms with microscopes, drying cabinets, utilitarian examining tables, storage and technicians’ lockers.

“We’re not chrome,” says Furlong. “We’re plastic. Real labs are made for sterile, efficient evidence processing. Bland is what they are. Hair nets, lab coast, all gloved, working with the instruments. They’re very careful. Our main concern is cross-contamination of any court exhibit. It’s not like TV where everybody’s gathered and handing around the one piece of evidence. No.”

When asked if crime scene evidence ever solved a case, maybe not in an hour as regularly happens on TV, but in a day, Furlong thinks for a moment, then brightens as he recalls one. “A forensic team went into a scene. Found the evidence quickly, solving the crime. The suspect had dropped his parole card.”

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