How SAPS forensic teams examine a crime scene

Evidence collected and analysed at the scene of a crime can make or break a case.

To help understand the important roles of the various SAPS personnel, the following adaptation of an article first published online on the 12th March 2014, by Petro-Anne Vlok & Christiaan Boonzaier, looks at how the forensic teams go about their work when processing a crime scene.

SAPS officer taping off a crime scene.

1. First member

  • When called out to a possible murder, the first police officer on the scene, called the first member, assesses if the victim is still alive. If so, the chief priority is to preserve life.
  • If the victim is dead, the officer secures the crime scene using SAPS-identifying tape. Officers are stationed to prevent unauthorised access.

Crime Scene Manager - This person is in charge of the crime scene.

2. Crime scene manager

  • The forensic department’s crime scene manager (CSM) relieves the first member. The CSM takes control of and responsibility for the scene and assigns crime scene technicians and an investigating officer (IO).
  • Next is the planning phase. The CSM, crime scene technicians and IO take a “first walk” through the crime scene, noting possible routes used by the victim or perpetrator as well as spotting what can be collected as evidence. They must take care not to disturb any evidence.
  • The CSM decides which experts and forensic resources are needed and the order in which the scene should be investigated.

3. Photographer

  • Before anyone may touch anything a photographer has to document the scene. Sometimes video documentation is also used or crime scene technicians make sketches.
  • 3D total station scanners are relatively new and effective documenting tools which take 3D images of the scene.

Crime Scene Expert - This person works inside the crime scene collecting evidence.

4. Crime scene technicians

  • They go through the scene with a fine-tooth comb. Because of the high crime rate in SA, crime scene technicians are often unavailable, in which case the IO collects evidence.
  • Technicians often use fluorescent light when searching for DNA samples. Blood, urine, semen and vomit show up in a bluish colour, even if the perpetrator tried to wash it off. UV light can help technicians see evidence hidden from the naked eye such as fingerprints, fibres and bruises on bodies.
  • Technicians are expected to keep meticulous records and note the date, time and place where evidence was collected.  Memory is fallible and wouldn’t hold up under cross-examination in court. Technicians have to label evidence as soon as they bag it.
  • After evidence has been collected on and around the victim, the body is taken to the morgue for further investigation by a forensic pathologist. Bags are placed over the hands and feet to preserve potential DNA evidence under the nails.
  • All collected evidence is preserved in evidence collection kits and sent to the forensic science laboratory for analysis.

Marking the scene

Coloured cones are placed throughout the crime scene to mark where evidence was collected. Each crime scene is different but technicians can, for example, place yellow cones next to blood evidence. The cones are also used to map the crime scene.

What is collected as evidence?

  • Trace evidence: gunshot residue, paint residue, broken glass, unknown chemicals
  • Bodily fluids: blood, semen, saliva, vomit
  • Impressions: fingerprints, footprints, tool marks
  • Weapons and firearms: knives, guns, bullet holes, cartridge casings
  • Documents and devices: diaries, suicide notes, computers, cellphones, memory sticks
  • Hair and fibres

Diagram depicting where various items of evidence are sent for analysis.

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