The following was drafted by Central District Patrol.
CRIME SCENE 101
The purpose of this month's blotter entry for the Central Police District is to shed some light on "crime scene etiquette"--the needs and expectations. Crime scenes, and the investigations of which they are part and parcel, take many forms, and may occur literally at any place or any time. Perhaps, in the course of your daily affairs, in your neighborhood, or out on the town, you find yourself near (or in) the scene of an investigation. Do you know what your rights are? Do you know what's expected of you? Do you know why we do what we are doing?
Before delving into the schematics of an investigation, I want to take a moment to encourage perspective and humanity. Beyond the possible legal ramifications of your behavior at the scene of official police action, please be cognizant of the rights, privacy, and emotions of those involved in the investigation. Police Officers are trained to tolerate the "slings and arrows" of scorn, ridicule and scrutiny. But there is no training to prepare those who find themselves experiencing the trauma, pain, and helplessness of victimhood or loss. There is no advanced reading to prepare someone for the anxiety and pressures of criminal suspicion. Place yourself in the shoes of whomever is on the other side of the tape, be it a victim, suspect, or witnesses. A little compassion, humanity, and restraint can go a long way. Before acting, before speaking, think about what your role is, think about what is appropriate, and please, think about the other person.
Your role and your rights
Regardless of my appeal for compassion--as a human being, a bystander or a member of society--you do, of course, have rights. You are entitled to observe an investigation from a reasonable distance. Transparency is a wonderful thing, and there should be no secret to how police officers conduct themselves. So what's a reasonable distance? When the yellow tape is up, anywhere beyond the tape is reasonable. If you get close to the tape, an officer may approach you, to make sure that you don't cross the tape. If there is no tape, consider 20 feet a reasonable metric, but subject to change under different scenarios. Generally speaking, 20 feet is far enough for officers to feel safe and for the investigation to proceed unimpeded, but close enough for you to see what's happening. That said, there is no bright line rule. Be conscious of the fact that there are safety concerns, for officers and involved parties, when uninvolved parties place themselves in the middle of an investigation. There may also be evidentiary concerns. When in doubt, err on the side of greater distance. If an officer asks or tells you to move, assume there is a reason; it's always safer to comply in the moment and ask for clarification later.
Crime Scene Tape
Most of us picture yellow crime scene tape when we think about police investigations, and we can thank Hollywood for making the use of the tape seem to be a ubiquitous element in police service. The truth is, we don't use the tape all that frequently. It may be utilized in investigations with large evidentiary spread, for calls involving significant trauma, or to ensure the safety of those inside or outside the perimeter (border) of the tape. The presence of crime scene tape (or lack thereof) shouldn't be interpreted to mean anything specific about the call behind the line, but it should always be interpreted to mean that your access to the area within is restricted.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Individuals may be needed for any number of reasons to assist in the investigation. But if you see someone crossing the line, do not assume that ingress is allowed for everyone. If you have legitimate questions or concerns about what is happening or what you are allowed to do, there may be an officer nearby who can advise, if they are in a position to. Every police officer on scene should have a task or duty within the investigation, and the investigation will typically take priority.
A K9 track is another investigative tool that begs for reasonableness on the part of you, the passerby. When you observe officers out with a dog, the safest bet is to keep your distance. You might have questions for the officers; unfortunately, the middle of a track is not an ideal time to ask those questions. K9 tracks are utilized to search for people, or things, that are of importance to the investigation. There are evidentiary, and even safety, concerns for the officers involved, and time is of the essence.
We ask for your patience during the course of an investigation. Some police actions are quite brief; others last hours and even days. We understand that this can prove inconvenient in a number of ways. You can count on the officers of the Madison Police Department to work as diligently as we can, but processing a scene is, itself, a process.
As you look at an investigation from the outside, you may observe officers standing around, seemingly doing nothing. There are any number of explanations for what might appear to be a lack of initiative and effort. For certain investigations, officers may be called upon to remain with a particular individual or piece of evidence. Their delineated role is to "stand around" in order to ensure evidentiary integrity, or to keep involved parties from leaving or jeopardizing the investigation in any way. In many cases, officers will also have to wait for specialists to arrive on scene before the next steps in the investigation can take place. Most departments, ours included, have finite resources. We work with what we have. The process may not always be pretty from an outside perspective, but that process has been honed over the years to provide the best possible service and ensure the most judicious outcome.
Bear in mind that your actions, even as an uninvolved party, may have legal consequences. If your actions impair or impede an officer's official actions during the course of an investigation, you could potentially face the prospect of a municipal or state charge. The key language in the State of Wisconsin's (and City of Madison's) provisions on Obstruction are as follows: "knowingly resists or obstructs an officer while such officer is doing any act in an official capacity and with lawful authority."
Transparency, education, and communication are essential components to a working relationship between law enforcement and the public. In the shared interest of preserving constitutional rights, augmenting public safety, and cultivating quality of life, there must be dialogue and openness. This blotter entry was drafted in the hopes of erasing some of the myth and mystery surrounding police investigations, and to provide baseline awareness to better help you navigate the fine line between rights and responsibilities at the scene.