Law Enforcement Officers Get Hands-on Training in Human Recovery

Officers assembly a human skeleton in the lab.
Officers assembly a human skeleton in the lab.

Law enforcement officers from Texas and Illinois learned how to recover and analyze human remains during a training offered by the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science (STAFS) facility in May.

A total of 23 officers from the Texas Rangers, Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Huntsville Police Department, El Paso Sheriff’s Office and various other agencies participated in the five day training, which included classroom instruction and hands-on activities at STAFS. Among the lessons learned were distinguishing between human and animal bones; using bones to identify age, gender, stature and ancestry; identifying insects in the decomposition process; and searching for and recovering evidence from the crime scene.

Officer works on their hands and knees at the crime scene.
Officer practice crime scene investigation procedures.
STAFS is only one of six facilities in the country dedicated to the study of forensic science and its effects on the human body. In addition to conducting research in the field of forensic science, it also provides training for law enforcement officers for processing crime scenes and for high school teachers in criminal justice and forensic science to bring practical experience in crime scene investigations to the classroom.

“Increasingly, law enforcement agents are faced with the recovery of human remains,” said Dr. Joan Bytheway, Director of STAFS. “Up to this point, most often the remains were collected primarily by the medical examiner’s office. This course provided the training needed for the agencies themselves to successfully be able to differentiate between animal and human bone and to systematically collect the human remains and any associated evidence.”

Bone features are used to determine age, sex, stature and ancestry.
Bone features are used to determine age, sex, stature and ancestry.
Dr. Bytheway, a professor of forensic anthropology at Sam Houston State University, presented classes on the vast amount of knowledge that can be acquired from skeletal remains and the crime scene. She identified the key features of animal and human bones and showed officers how to tell the difference between contemporary and historic human remains.

Bones also can help determine the age, sex, stature and ancestry of victims. For example, the skull has distinct features at the brow, jaw bone and base of the head, as well as pelvic shapes and features that can be used to determine if the victim is male or female. Sutures in the skull as well as teeth can be used to estimate age and features of the eyes, nose, and skull may help pinpoint ancestry. Leg bones are used to determine height.

Insect species can help determine time of death.
Insect species can help determine time of death.
In addition, Dr. Bytheway presented information on the stages of decomposition and how they can be used to determine the time of death. For example, the timing of the release of body fluids and how long they are present is an important key in the post-mortem interval. STAFS is developing key information to help investigators understand the unique process for the Texas climate and environment.

Dr. Sibyl Bucheli, an entomology professor at Sam Houston State University, showed officers the insects that can be found during the decomposition process. By understanding the life cycles and succession of species, investigators will be able to better pinpoint the time of death for individuals.

Dental records can unlock many mysteries for unidentified bodies or injuries.
Dental records can unlock many mysteries for unidentified bodies or injuries.
Forensic Dentist Dr. Peter Marsh discussed how teeth and dental records can assist in the investigation, including identifying the victim. Teeth can help identify victims by comparing features to dental x-ray records, such as crowns, roots, and fillings. Dental records also contain a wealth of information for further investigation, such as doctors, medications, medical conditions and surgeries or injuries. Teeth can also help determine age and some feature can predict ancestry.

All the evidence is presented in the case study.
All the evidence is presented in the case study.
At STAFS, officers learned proper procedures to recovery human remains and associated evidence, using the basic grid and datum method as well as new technologies, such as ground penetrating radar, 3-D scanning of the crime scene and total station application to record the location of individual evidence. They also practiced other steps in the process, such as crime scene photography, sifting for evidence and mapping evidence at the scene. Finally, they got to assemble and analyze the evidence to come up with a profile of the victim and the evidence at the crime scene.

Member of The Texas State University System