Crime scene instruction

Photography is the focus of a criminal justice course
Monday, February 27, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:34 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Emily Brogdon, a freshman at Columbia College, has known she wanted a career in forensic science since age 9, when she began watching crime scene documentaries with her dad.

Freshman Lacey Twellman has also wanted to pursue a career in the legal system since a young age.

“It began as a police officer and then a lawyer. Then I decided that a lawyer was too boring,” Twellman said. “Now, I wanted to do either investigative crime scenes or work in a lab.”

Both Brogdon and Twellman are in Michael Himmel’s class on crime scene photography. In addition, the adjunct instructor teaches two classes in forensic science — bloodstain evidence and cold case homicide — as part of a four-year program in the college’s criminal justice administration department.

To give students a truer understanding of their classroom lessons, Himmel uses a series of hands-on activities and practical exercises.

“They actually get to use some of the tools being used at police departments and apply some of the techniques used at police departments rather than being lectured to,” Himmel said. “An exam (is) given for whatever they retained.”

Boone County Deputy Sheriff Scott Skinner, who took Himmel’s course on bloodstain evidence in 2001, said a big part of the class was applying what he learned.

“It wasn’t just pulling information out of a textbook or looking at a visual aid screen,” Skinner said. “It was actually getting out and using materials and the information.”

Himmel began teaching at the Law Enforcement Training Institute at MU in the 1980s. He said he has always had an interest in teaching and began filling in at Columbia College in 1988. Himmel worked as a police investigator for the Columbia Police Department for more than 20 years before he retired in 2001.

To keep his skills current, Himmel maintains an instructor’s certificate in Missouri, as well as a peace officer license. Himmel also provides training at the Missouri Division of the International Association for Identification — which focuses on training and research for forensic specialists. He is a member of the division’s board of directors and has previously served as president.

In Himmel’s crime scene photography class, students learn the fundamentals of taking photos on a crime scene using standard 35 mm and digital cameras. Students also learn the importance of documenting a crime. All aspects of the crime must be presented to a judge and jury through notes, photos and sketches. Himmel said a photo “doesn’t forget.”

“What I find most interesting about forensics is the way that there are so many different areas; there’s not one specific area that you work in,” said Beth Zuchek, a senior in forensic science and one of four students in the crime scene photo class. “There’s so many positions in forensics: Print, firearms, blood stain evidence, photography.”

The small size of Himmel’s classes allows for more personal attention.

“As soon as you raise your hand and ask a question, he is right over there, answering your question in detail,” said Samantha Seymour, a junior in forensic science. “He has a lot of time to spend with each student.”

Himmel allows up to 15 students in each class.

“We are able to shoot more practical exercises because I can give a lot more attention to detail and work with them,” Himmel said. “They’re getting to shoot a lot more than a regular class.”

Taking a good crime scene photo requires specific camera positions and different light techniques. Seymour said patience is necessary.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get a good shot and you have to keep moving the light,” she said. “You have to keep adjusting it until you get it right. It doesn’t always happen right away — it could take 10 minutes to take a single picture.”

Himmel said he hopes his students learn attention to detail.

“They’ve got to be patient, they’ve got to slow down,” he said. “Things don’t happen as fast as it does on TV. It’s a lot more time-consuming work.”

The need for patience is not immediately evident on fast-paced shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Crossing Jordan” and variations of “Law & Order.”

“A lot of times with the ‘CSI’-type shows, they will find a whole fingerprint or a spot of blood somewhere. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case a lot of times,” Skinner said. “The longer the crime goes before its been recorded, things can be exposed to things like weather, or other people can touch doorknobs going in and out of places.”

Students in Himmel’s photography class agree the shows can be misleading and choose not to watch them.

“I didn’t like that everything was solved in an hour,” Twellman said. “It can take up to several hours just to photograph a crime scene.”

Skinner said Himmel taught him both the science of working a crime scene and that no method is too strange if it can help solve a case. “It really shows that the more hard work you put into a case, hopefully, the better your results come out,” Skinner said.

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