Roles of the first attending officer
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What are the roles and responsibilities of the first attending police officer at a crime scene?
Of all the roles and responsibilities police hold, one of the most important any officer could have, would be that of the first attending officer at a crime scene. The ability of the first attending officer to perform their duties accurately is vital for the outcome of evidence collection to be successful. The importance of the evidence collected can help the investigation in many ways, it can be used to determine if there was a crime committed, help link suspects with the crime scene or victims, assist in establishing any proofs/elements of the crime, support witness/victim testimony’s and more importantly help exonerate the innocent.
Errors made by the first attending officer may never be amended. That is why it is important that the first attending officer adhere to the crucial steps required for preserving the crime scene. Regardless of the officers ranking or the severity of the crime, the duties that are required remain the same. They include; the safety of ones self and all others present at the scene, identification and preservation of the crime scene, notifying radio (VKG) on the extent of the crime and request required assistance, determine potential witnesses and suspects and finally to make sure detailed notes on all aspect of the crime are kept updated in their notebook.
The key to an officer’s survival when arriving at a crime scene or incident is the assessment of the situation for safety hazards. This assessment is an ongoing role that does not stop until they have finished at the scene. It is when an officer becomes complacent that their safety is compromised. Once the officer has assessed the situation and feels it is safe to enter, they can then start assessing assistance needed for other people.
The foremost important role of an officer to carry out is preservation of life. The safety and preservation of others comes second only to that of the officers own life. An officer may have a duty of care to fulfil, but not if their own safety will be jeopardised in doing so. While the preservation of a crime scene is important, the safety and lives of others is placed before this, even if it means damage to the crime scene. (Donofrio 2000) (Byrd n.d.)
An officer must first attend to or request help for those who require it. They can then determine the nature of the crime committed and begin to cordon off the scene. This will include setting up of perimeters and removing everybody from within these perimeters. While removing people from the scene, the officers need to be careful not to disturb any potential evidence. One way to minimise disturbance is to set up a common Entry/Exit point, for all people who enter or leave the scene to utilise. Before deciding where the Entry/Exit point should be situated, an officer needs determine the route that would cause minimal disturbance to the crime scene and keep it away from the route most likely used by the perpetrators. The purpose behind having a common Entry/Exit point is to stop people disturbing and potentially contaminating the evidence (Forensic Services Group 1999) and makes it easier to monitor everyone in a logbook as only one point of access is used. It is also important that only the necessary people enter the crime scene and that all non-essentials be kept out.
When cordoning off a crime scene, it is important to take into account the nature of the crime. This may include aspects such as wether the crime scene is indoors or outdoors, the type of crime that has been committed and things that could interfere with the scene for instance – animals, humans etc. When setting out the boundary, it is good practise to use objects that will physically stop anything from entering and causing contamination. An officer could use crime scene tape to discourage humans from entering but it may be of little use to keep animals, such as dogs, out of the scene. If there is a risk that an animal may enter the scene then a more rigid fixture may need to be used. When determining the size of the boundary needed, the officer needs ensure that every part of area, where the crime took place, and any other areas that they believe may be relevant to the crime scene, are included. (NSW Police 2004, Crime Scenes) (Forensic Services Group 1999)
Setting up a boundary may stop intruders from damaging the crime scene, but it does not stop elements that are out of the officer’s control, such as the weather or emergency personnel. If an officer suspects that evidence may be at risk then they should take steps to protect it. This may include covering items, to shelter them from rain, having other personnel guard the item or even moving the item to a safer place. Once an item has been moved or altered in any way the officer needs to ensure that the details of the item is recorded, how it was originally found, how it has been altered, the reason for its removal and where it has been moved to. This information should be recorded in their notebook. Further methods that can be used for the documentation of altered evidence can be drawing a diagram of where and how the item was originally situated in their notebook or taking photos of the item before it is moved or altered. (Forensic Services Group 1999)
Whenever an officer intends to protect evidence or before entering a crime scene, they should take into account the Locard Exchange Principle. ‘Locard’s Exchange Principle states that with contact between two items, there will be an exchange.’ (Thornton, J 1997) In other words, when an officer touches any item at a crime scene, they will be leaving evidence of themselves behind and will take away with them evidence from the item they touched. If the item needs to be covered, they will need to take into account that the material they use to cover the item may contaminate it. Therefore, the idea is to cover the item with something clean and that is not part of the original crime scene. (Forensic Services Group 1999)
The police radio plays an important role with the police, particularly concerning a crime scene. The use of the radio is not limited to CNI (central names index) checks or for calling off or on for jobs. The radio at a crime scene is used to relay information from the crime scene back to the radio room (VKG). The first attending officer acts as the eyes and ears of the rest of the police force. As nobody else knows what has happened and to what extent, it is vital that information regarding the scene is relayed back to the VKG swiftly, accurately and with regular updates. This not only gives everyone else an idea of the crime, but also gives VKG an idea as to what types of support personnel the officer may need. As the officer will be very busy attending to people and setting out the crime scene, they may not have time to request each individual support personnel that will be needed. VKG can accomplish the majority of this work for the officer. If any specialist services are needed, for example, the fire brigade for suspected fire outbreaks, SES for crowd control or even the electricity company for disconnecting power, all the officer needs to do is request these services over the radio and the VKG will organise it for them.(Forensic Services Group 1999)
Witnesses play an extremely important role in any accident or crime scene. As police are very rarely present when an incident takes place, they rely upon witnesses to give detailed accounts on what they witnessed. When an officer is removing anyone from the scene, it is important to determine if they witnessed anything that may be relevant to the investigation. It is essential to remember not to allow witnesses, whenever possible, to group together. If witnesses are recounting to each other what they saw then it can make them have doubts about what they remember to have happened, as everyone recollects things differently and notices things that others have not. They may also see this as an opportunity to get their stories straight, which in turn will make the statements they give inaccurate. (Code of police practice: A guide for first line officers n.d.)
Although it is not the first attending officer’s job to complete a full interview with each witness, it is their job to be on the look out for potential suspects and witnesses and to record the particulars of each person. This would include their name, address, contact details, and if possible, where they were situated when the offence took place. All this information needs to be recorded in their notebook. (Weston & Wells 1990) (Forensic Services Group 1999)
A notebook is a police officers best friend, if used correctly. It is an extremely important tool to use for future reference. This can help an officer recall particulars about an incident. The use of a notebook at a crime scene is very important as it serves as a place the officer can record any information that is relevant to the incident. It may be used to record witnesses details, presumed suspects, a log book for Entry/Exit points or as a sketch pad for drawing detailed images of important evidence. It is of the utmost importance that the officer fills out their notebook with attention to detail, as it is not only considered as a legal document, it can also be used to help convict a suspect. (NSW Police 2004, Notebooks)
A crime scene can be compared to a book, each time a piece of evidence is destroyed, a witness is not questioned or details not correctly recorded in the officer’s notebook, can be compared as destroying the pages, missing a page or reading information incorrectly from the book. The story will become blurred and they may never know how it ends. By failing to adhere to the critical steps outlined, the officer may cause the crime to become unsolvable due to the lack of witnesses or incomplete or damaged evidence. Therefore, the more information the officer preserve, the better it will be for the investigators to piece together, improving the understanding that they will have on the crime that has been committed.
In conclusion, it can be seen that the first attending officer has a lot of responsibility with regard to the crime scene. By failing to carry out any single step, may have the consequences of hindering or failing the investigation process.
Byrd, M n.d., Duty Description for the Crime Scene Investigator, viewed 15th June
Code of police practice: A guide for first line officers n.d., First at the scene, viewed
14th June 2005,
Donofrio, A 2000, ‘First Responder Duties’, Law and order, vol. 48, no. 4,
Forensic Services Group 1999, ‘Forensic evidence at crime/incident scenes’,
Policing Issues and Practice Journal, April, pp. 28-34.
NSW Police 2004, Crime Scenes, NSW Police Service Handbook, cited in
‘Police as Investigators 1’, 2005, pp. 48-50.
NSW Police 2004, Notebooks, NSW Police Service Handbook, cited in
‘Police as Investigators 1’, 2005, pp. 132-135.
Thornton, J 1997, ‘The General Assumptions And Rationale Of Forensic
Identification’, Modern Scientific Evidence: The Law And Science Of Expert Testimony, Volume 2, (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1997)
Weston, P & Wells, J 1990, ‘Locating witnesses’, in Criminal investigation: Basic
Perspectives, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, pp. 121-134.