There Are No Shortcuts in Death Investigations: Documenting the Body

documenting body

Documenting the Body

By: Joseph Giacalone

I’ve said this many times, you don’t get a second chance to do it right the first time.

Investigators have a tough enough job when investigating a death scene, so doing more is never popular. They must control the scene, prevent unauthorized access, avoid contamination, keep the bosses happy and create an investigative plan to capture the suspect. So, with all of this going on, we sometimes forget the basics, especially in what appears to be an “obvious” accident or natural death.

I can tell you from experience that you must treat every death as if it is suspicious until the evidence proves otherwise. This avoids the dreadful phone call from the medical examiner / coroner three days later, “We have a problem.” This is another reason that a department policy on having an investigator respond to every death case is important. The decision should not be up to the patrol if the death appears to be natural or accidental. I don’t care how many medications or how old the person is. A well trained, observant investigator should respond to the scene.

On average, it takes about 24 hours from the time the body is found until the body reaches the morgue. Depending on where and how the body is found, it could be even longer. Many things can happen to your body before it arrives at the morgue that are beyond your control. This is why it is a Best Practice to photograph the body in great detail for two reasons:

    1. You only get one chance to document and process the scene right
    2. A lot can happen to the body within those 24 hours

I have seen a lot of things happen to the body before it arrives at the morgue. Postmortem artifacts are not uncommon, but if the photos weren’t take on the scene, someone has some explaining to do. One thing I have learned is that it only has to happen to you once and then you’ll never let it happen again. Why wait for it to happen when it can be avoided with a little extra effort.

For instance, after responding and taking photos of an apparent drug overdose of a somewhat healthy looking 42 year old male, we took our photos, surveyed the scene, collected drug paraphernalia and waited for the morgue attendants to take the body away. Two days later we were front an center defending our scene investigation against claims made by the family that he was murdered. The body showed obvious bruising of the face and X-Rays should a broken collarbone. After producing our photos from the scene, it was later determined that the morgue attendants failed to secure the body, jammed on the breaks and the body went flying. No what would have happened if we didn’t go to the scene, conduct an investigation, snapped some pictures and wrote a quick report?

About the Author:

Joe Giacalone is a retired NYPD Sergeant, current Adjunct Professor, media contributor and internationally recognized policing expert. Joe has been on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Business News, CBS, NBC, ABC, The Today Show, Good Morning America and many more.