Sitting in a small classroom, with two rows of tables, six east Alabama investigators took notes as Mark Hopwood clicked through crime scene photos. Hopwood, a senior forensic scientist with the Center for Applied Forensics at Jacksonville State University, frequently conducts training for local law enforcement at no cost.
“Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches and adapt,” Hopwood said, flipping through photos of a body burned beyond recognition.
Law enforcement across the state will have to continue to adapt as the Department of Forensic Sciences will likely receive another small budget cut if Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed budget passes.
The department is funded through the state’s general fund and earmarked money collected through various court fees and bail bond fees. Since the 2011 fiscal year, more than half of the department’s funding has been through through earmarked money.
“Since 2011, DFS stopped giving assistance to police departments on crime scenes,” Hopwood said. “The center has filled that void, but this training is aimed at giving departments the tools to process their own scenes.”
The training, a five-part series, teaches beginners and seasoned investigators techniques to collect and document evidence at crime scenes.
“We do this to put officers out there and show them where they are screwing up,” Hopwood said while watching the six men process a mock crime scene.
Since Hopwood started offering the training, he said he has seen departments’ confidence grow.
“I used to do calls in Dekalb County, but these guys now have the confidence level to work these scenes themselves,” Hopwood said. “We’re always here though if there is anything exceptionally unusual.”
Anniston police Chief Shane Denham said he sends his officers to the center’s seminars because the sessions are local, free and provide quality training.
“We have a new transfer to our crime scene lab who was a patrol officer,” Denham said. “He’s completing the training to help him transition to the different duties he will be responsible for.”
When the Department of Forensic Sciences stopped assisting law enforcement at crime scenes there was a vacuum, Denham said.
“It was tough on departments and it became a burden,” he said. “We are lucky we have the center to draw from.”
In a smaller police department such as the one in Piedmont, having trained investigators who can process scenes themselves is a big advantage, Chief Freddy Norton said Thursday.
“We can do what we need to do at a scene,” Norton said. “We don’t have to call anyone else and wait on them. It speeds up the process.”
Norton sent one officer to the training Thursday.
“We used to only have one officer on call all the time to process crime scenes,” he said. “Now we can rotate weeks and take some of the stress off those officers.”