What forensics work is really like

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Messenger photo by Dedra Cordle
London Public Library hosted a forensics program on April 24 with Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) special agent supervisor Roger Davis and DNA laboratory supervisor Kristen Slaper. For more than an hour, they spoke to a crowd of more than 20 about the work performed at BCI and common misconceptions about their jobs as fueled by television dramas.

(Posted May 1, 2019)

By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer

As a regular patron of London Public Library, Michelle Tuttle looks forward to the library’s special programs because they provide a chance for her family to experience new and educational activities together.

“It’s always fun for us to look online and see what they will be doing,” she said.

When Tuttle came across the library’s announcement for a forensics program featuring employees from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), she immediately told her 14-year-old daughter, Kelley, about it.

For years, the two have held date nights where they settle down in front of the television to watch their favorite criminal investigation shows. Throughout each hour-long show, they debate the cases, discuss the actions of their favorite characters and laugh at how neatly the most complex cases always come together at the end.

“They can be a little ridiculous sometimes, but we love them anyway,” Tuttle said.

Over the course of watching the shows, Kelley has started to envision a future in which she solves crimes–and not on a set for television.

“At first I thought of being an emergency medical technician, and then I thought of getting into the forensics field. Now I’m set on working with the FBI on criminal analysis,” said Kelley, an eighth-grader at London Middle School.

Kelley’s desire to work in this field set off an unease with her mother.

“I don’t like it,” said Tuttle, who works at a pharmacy. “It’s too scary.”

To try to quell her nerves, she thought the forensics program would be a great opportunity to learn about the field in reality as compared to what is presented in television dramas.

“I wanted to know more about this field from people who actually experience it,” she explained. “I wanted to maybe find an ease in Kelley’s potential career path.”

So, on April 24, the Tuttle family drove to the library where Roger Davis, a special agent supervisor, and Kristen Slaper, a DNA laboratory supervisor, talked about their backgrounds and BCI and addressed common misconceptions related to their line of work. It wasn’t a presentation that calmed Tuttle’s mind.

“It’s not a line of work for everyone,” Davis said.

Since becoming a patrol officer at a suburban police department more than 25 years ago, Davis has worked on a drug unit and spent the past 15 years working in the investigation division with a focus on crimes against children. It is a career, he noted, that has taken him to many locations, none of which were on pristine beaches, as shown in some forensics-focused television shows.

“I’ve been down at the bottom of an outhouse, searching for evidence, and I’ve looked through the muck of sewage treatment pipes,” he said. “I’ve been to places that are as far away from Miami Beach as you can get.”

Davis told the audience of more than 20 that as a homicide investigator, he has seen the worst of humanity but finds some solace in the effort that is taken to solve the crimes.

“We have people at the BCI that are committed to solving crimes and finding justice for the victims and their families,” he said. “It’s not like these shows where everything can be solved in a matter of days. Sometimes it takes years if not decades, and sometimes it never happens, but we always have people in our units trying to solve them.”

According to Slaper, who began her career at BCI as a DNA scientist more than 13 years ago, BCI experts are currently testing evidence collected from crime scenes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Davis said cases from the earlier decades are complex and frustrating, and that largely stems from how scenes were covered then. He used an example of vague notes that may have worked for the investigator at that time, but not for those in the present.

“It would say, ‘The man on the hill told me…’”, he explained. “Well, there’s no mention of the hill or the name of the man, so it doesn’t do us a lot of good.”

Still, Slaper said all parties work with what they have, and she feels they do a great job of it, too. Davis agreed.

“I may be biased, but I think we have one of the most efficient BCI’s in the country,” he said, referring to their average turnaround time of three weeks for analysis of collected DNA.

One member of the audience asked Davis and Slaper why they do what they do, especially when it means they see first-hand the horrors humans can inflict on one another. Both said they do it because they know they are helping others by working the case.

“To be able to find a resolution to a tragic event means a lot to families,” said Davis. “Knowing that you played some part in helping them as they try to heal from these circumstances is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.”

After the presentation, several parents came up to Davis and Slaper to speak about their children who have shown an interest in a career in their respective fields. Davis told them that although he has seen truly awful things and been placed in dangerous situations, he feels it is a worthwhile path.

Kelley said she is more determined than ever to work in the criminal field. Her mother said she is going to try to support her endeavors.

“Some of what they said creeped me out,” said Tuttle with a laugh. “But I know the importance of their professions, and if this is what Kelley wants to do, I’ll try to help her reach her goals.”

This presentation marks the second time BCI employees have visited London Public Library. Stephanie McComas, support services administrator, said the library would welcome them back again. She added that the library’s shelves contain plenty of books related to the field, both non-fiction and fiction.

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