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Dordt College News

Crime scene investigation trains Dordt students for law enforcement

December 8, 2004

Yellow police tape cordoning off a crime scene on the campus of Dordt College recently indicated an investigation underway …. not by law enforcement officials, but by students studying criminal justice at the college.

“If I think a part of the textbook is boring I find a way to liven it up,” says Professor Ruth Harthoorn Kocisko, a former criminal defense attorney hired this year as an instructor in Dordt’s new criminal justice program. Kocisko says she’s busy but invigorated by the career change, after serving for 22 years as a court-appointed defense attorney in Washington, D.C. That background is helping Kocisko train students to avoid making procedural law enforcement mistakes that once helped her win cases for clients.

This fall Kocisko took the criminal investigation class outside of the classroom to a simulated crime scene, identified with yellow police tape around a large area in front of Dordt’s campus. Students became part of a crime scene investigation, taking on assigned roles as reporters, photographers, sketchers, and detectives. Their task was to find out as much as they could about a fictitious crime for which Kocisko had planted evidence. Kocisko played the role of an FBI agent and, wearing a shirt and cap identifying her as such, coordinated the investigation. She had “come from Omaha to direct police academy students in a search to recover evidence.”

Crime Scene

The students were taught to use the triangulation method of sketching a site. The triangulation method measures the distances from stationary objects to the crime scene, and is particularly useful in outdoor scenes.

Professor Ruth Kocisko gave her students rubber gloves and coverings for their shoes for the crime scene investigation.

“They even found evidence that I had not planted, like a piece of glass and pieces of apple, which could contain DNA. It did take two searches to recover a set of car keys, though,” commented Kocisko.

Students responded to the event in journal entries. One wrote, “I think I was expecting the evidence to be more obvious than it was,” and another, “Investigating a crime scene is much more involved than I previously thought.” Members of the class became convinced of the value of the techniques they were being taught. One wrote, “The worth of the grid search pattern was proven in our search. We were able to find a set of keys that we missed in the first pass. These keys could be a very valuable piece of evidence in catching the perpetrator,” and another wrote, “Being a crime scene investigator is a very tedious and meticulous job that requires a lot of hard work, a strong imagination, and an understanding of criminals and how they think.”

Kocisko tries to find a balance between using hands-on learning activities and presenting material. “I think any method used all the time gets old,” she says. Citing statistics that show that doing the “real thing” or simulating real activities improves students’ retention significantly, Kocisko’s learning opportunities this semester have included simulated courtroom experiences and identifying suspects in a mock criminal line-up.

She also tries to help students develop a perspective on law enforcement that challenges them to take seriously how their faith shapes their work as a police officer, detective, lawyer, or social worker. “It’s really important in the criminal justice system to treat people with compassion,” says Kocisko. “We cannot feel that [in the criminal system] people are beneath us” who adds that having the right attitude toward criminal suspects will make a better law officer.

But it takes more than a good attitude to make a good law enforcement officer.

That’s why Kocisko set up the realistic crime scene investigation. She is emphatic about the need for students to pay meticulous attention to detail and develop good work habits. Arrest rates for crimes are astoundingly low—less than eighteen percent for property crimes, twenty-six percent for robbery, forty-seven percent for rape, and sixty-three percent for criminal homicide. She is giving her students instruction not only in how evidence is gathered but in interview and interrogation techniques and writing reports so they can effectively pass on information they’ve gathered.

Kocisko is doing more than simulating crimes to get her students involved in real life cases. For the first criminal justice class of the year, “Judge Ruth” entered the classroom to the sound of the gavel and proceeded to call out students’ names, arraigning each of them on charges ranging from auto theft to shoplifting to armed robbery in her simulated courtroom. After asking each of them if they had counsel, the defendants’ classmates gradually began acting as defense lawyers. Three weeks later, Judge Ruth made a return appearance, assigning the class the role of jury, while she set up a case, presented the prosecuting attorney’s case, the defense attorney’s case, and finally presided on the bench to give juror instructions. Kocisko intentionally made the case complex, and after wrestling with various issues, the jury was deadlocked. An effort to come to consensus only reinforced their positions, with the mock jury finally “saved by the bell.” But as they left Kocisko reminded them that in real life hung juries are not good for anyone. The process needs to work, and they need to learn how to make it work as they enter careers in the field of criminal justice.

Criminal justice students are also required to read and learn everything they can on a variety of current and past high-profile cases. Students are currently following the Scott Petersen, Kobe Bryant, Mark Hacking, Kansas City serial murders, and Michael Jackson cases as well as reading about Ted Kaczynski, Timothy Mc Veigh, Jeffrey Dahmer, and other high profile cases.

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