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Forensic pros teach teens about real-life “CSI” scenes

From left, Central Academy of Excellence High School students Shaniyah Higgins-Graves, Cecilia James, Joyce Lyn, Jasmin Fields worked alongside Kansas City forensics professionals to analyze a mock crime scene in a six-week crime scene investigation program.
From left, Central Academy of Excellence High School students Shaniyah Higgins-Graves, Cecilia James, Joyce Lyn, Jasmin Fields worked alongside Kansas City forensics professionals to analyze a mock crime scene in a six-week crime scene investigation program. Jesus Lopez-Gomez/Special to The Star

Cecilia James, Central Academy of Excellence High School junior, spent about 10 minutes on the crime scene before she had a working hypothesis of what was going on.

The spray pattern of the blood, the drugs and clothing with small tears: What happened seemed clear to her.

“It’s obvious,” she said looking the scene over with her team. “This is a drug deal gone wrong.”

But James knew better than to trust her first instinct.

The six weeks of forensics training she and her 17 other classmates had received from local crime scene analysis professionals before they arrived at the mock crime scenes at the Kansas City Police Crime Laboratory — training that included fingerprint collection and blood analysis — compelled her to question what seemed like well-reasoned analysis.

For example, James asked: “What if somebody planted the drugs?”

The Center Academy of Excellence High School students worked alongside Kansas City forensic professionals working recreated crime scenes — well done but markedly fictional scenes, with mannequins as victims — as part of an early effort to integrate the police department’s new east Kansas City location in to its surrounding community.

While the city police department’s 27th Street and Prospect Avenue location, the East Patrol Division Station and Crime Lab Campus, won’t be open until next year, a press statement noted the $74 million investment in Kansas City’s east side. The goal is to connect the police and the work they’ll do inside of the new facility with the surrounding community.

Bringing those professionals in contact with sophomores and juniors at two area high schools — Central Academy of Excellence High School and Lincoln College Preparatory Academy — is part of that effort.

After a tour of the facilities and brief introduction to the crime lab’s services in house, students went to work applying their forensic knowledge.

Kevin Winer, the crime lab’s chief criminologist, said the forensics workers who have visited with the high school students have been able to build on existing interest in crime investigation, inspired by TV series such as “CSI.”

Winer gave the students a 15-minute introduction to blood-stain analysis.

“They were very engaged,” he said. “I like to think it’s more our training than television that’s guiding their work today.”

It’s one thing to watch them solve a crime on TV. It’s another to go hands on.”

The activity is also part of an effort to bring area students in contact with the crime lab’s professional opportunities.

Winer said the lab personnel have gone into classrooms before for appearances and worked with students on forensics activities, but the crime lab has never hosted a mock crime scene.

The crime scene investigation project solicited students with prior science experience. An adventurous chemistry major, James fit the profile precisely.

“I’m not scared to do things, so it’s something I’d be willing to try,” James said.

There’s a macabre tone to the students’ work, but James said engaging the concept of murder and violence with the neutral lens of science is a way to disarm it.

“You can always hear about murders and hear about children being found somewhere, but here you’re finding out about what happened, what the scene looked like,” she said.

James said she’s never thought about going for a career in forensics. If she can’t get in as attorney, her first choice, James said she’s going to be a CEO.

After Thursday’s activity, however, James said she might consider crime scene investigation as her fall-back plan.

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