Monica Grover: As snow flurries fall upon a quiet Virginia street, teams of FBI employees scour a line of beige homes with pale green shutters, searching for signs of crime.
As they work, an eclectic assortment of officials and other characters observe—and sometimes try to get in the way.
But, there’s a twist.
The onlookers and interrupters are fake, the homes are uninhabited, this residential street is located inside of a warehouse-like training facility, and both the evidence and the weather are staged. It’s May in Virginia, after all.
Welcome to the FBI’s Crime Scene Administration and Management Basic course, which equips employees from across the Bureau’s 56 field offices and full range of job descriptions to secure, document, and collect evidence from crime scenes as members of Evidence Response Teams—or ERTs, for short.
On this episode of Inside the FBI, our host Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory will take us inside the world of ERTs. We’ll learn why these teams exist, how they’re trained to approach crime scenes, and how their meticulous efforts on the ground help ensure that justice can be served in the courtroom.
I’m Monica Grover, and this is Inside the FBI.
Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory: The FBI Laboratory—which has facilities in Huntsville, Alabama, and Quantico, Virginia—employs some of the world’s foremost forensic science experts.
But since it would be logistically impossible to send them to every single crime scene the Bureau investigates, the FBI employs Evidence Response Teams—or ERTs—to collect evidence and get it to the Lab in the best condition possible.
Supervisory Special Agent Heather Thew—a former member of the Philadelphia Field Office’s Evidence Response Team who now works as an instructor with the Fredericksburg, Virginia-based Evidence Response Training Unit—says these teams serve as a bridge between the crime scene and the Lab.
Heather Thew: Therefore, we're the eyes and ears, too, a lot of times for that case. And for that case agent who is working this, we are their search team, and we have to be able to identify those things on scene using our tools, our techniques—such as alternate light source, such as our fingerprint techniques, looking for latent fingerprints, being able to uncover these things. But then we have to collect and preserve these things, too.
Oprihory: ERTs ensure crime scenes are closed off to potential outside contamination, document them in photos and drawings, and scour every inch of them for potential evidence.
Evidence Response Teams search for potential proof of foul play, including evidence they can see—like footprints in snow or a gun that a perpetrator might’ve accidentally left behind—and other types of evidence that their specialized training teaches them how to illuminate, develop, or extract—such as blood spatter that suspects mistakenly think they’ve cleaned up enough to hide, latent fingerprints, and DNA.
Once the collected evidence is properly packaged, ERTs send it to the FBI Laboratory. When the Lab’s forensic examiners receive it, they can leverage the full range of forensic tools at their disposal to derive additional information that can help inform a case.
The overall goal of these teams’ efforts is to collect and preserve the integrity of evidence to ensure due diligence to every American's constitutional rights.
As Supervisory Special Agent Tom Duffy, a U.S. Army veteran who has led training efforts at the Evidence Response Team Unit, told us:
Tom Duffy: Our ultimate goal is to take the jury and put them in there, looking over our shoulders virtually, as we encounter things and find things and document, so they're confident that we processed it the correct way. They are confident that we found everything.
Oprihory: But what does the right way look like?
Here’s what Supervisory Special Agent Gene Lanzillo, a veteran ERT member and instructor with the ERTU, had to say:
Lanzillo: I'll get forensically nerdy on you for a minute here, but it all goes back to a French forensic scientist named Edmond Locard.
And Edmond Locard was a French forensic scientist who was active in the early part of the, or late part of the 19th century, early part of the 20th century—actually, well into the mid-part of the 20th century. And he's the one that said we should take all these scientific processes, these protocols—chemistry, biology, physics, metallurgy—and apply them to crime scenes.
And he came up with what's called the Locard's exchange principle, which says in a nutshell: every contact leaves a trace. And so, at every crime scene, regardless if it's the FBI or, you know, a three-person police department out in the middle of Iowa, they're doing the same thing. You're looking for that contact, that sense that things have interacted, people and objects have interacted at a crime scene. And we're looking for that trace.
Oprihory: But, he explained, the FBI teaches its ERT members to seek out that trace evidence in a unique way.
During the foundational training for Evidence Response Team members—known as the ERT Crime Scene Administration and Management Basic Course—FBI personnel are taught to use a 12-step process when approaching crime scenes.
The first and last steps—getting ready for the crime scene investigation and releasing the crime scene—typically bookend the investigative process.
But there’s flexibility when it comes to the other 10 things that happen in between—such as taking entry, evidence, and exit photographs; creating a sketch of the scene; searching the scene; and recording and collecting evidence. They may even happen simultaneously: Picture someone sketching a diagram of the first floor of a house, while another ERT member bags evidence upstairs. But they’re all equally important and inevitably happen in the process of a crime scene investigation.
Lanzillo: Part of our responsibility as instructors is to make them understand, don’t think about it sequentially. Think about it—I hate this term, but—holistically. How it applies to the entire search.
Oprihory: According to Duffy, the process is designed so that teams can process crime scenes in a methodical, detail-oriented way without needing excessive amounts of equipment, gear, and—most importantly—manpower.
While every one of the FBI’s 56 field offices has its own Evidence Response Team, each team typically ranges from 8 to 40 people, with the overall ERT community being approximately 2,100 FBI personnel strong, Lanzillo said.
Each field office’s special agent in charge controls its ERT and decides whether and how the team will deploy—either piecemeal or as a collective—in most cases.
Lanzillo: So, the field office will say, we have this kind of search happening, we need ERT to help out. Some of it, as you would expect—agent-involved shootings, things we call forensic searches, where specialized techniques are needed—ERT will almost always deploy. Recovery of human remains, body searches. We'll do those. High-profile terrorism searches, those sorts of things, Evidence Response Team will do. Any time you have a source that requires a high level of sophistication and specificity, they may ask for the Evidence Response Team.
Oprihory: But under certain circumstances, the Evidence Response Team Unit—whose main jobs are to create policy and to fund and train teams—is also put in charge of deployments.
Lanzillo: Think major incidents—Las Vegas shooting, Boston bombing, 9/11, things of that nature, or the Pulse Nightclub shooting. We will, here as a Headquarters element, contact other divisions and say, "We need to deploy you in support of this." And so, you can deploy all over the country as a team member.
Oprihory: According to Lanzillo, while there were ad hoc Evidence Response Teams in the 1980s, the FBI created its first official ERTs right before one major event—the Oklahoma City Bombing. But even decades before that, he explained, the Bureau made instructional videos to teach local law enforcement how to process crime scenes like the FBI.
Lanzillo: We look at them now—laughing because of the fedoras and the suits and the cigarettes—but also saying how much they shared in common with what we do now.
Oprihory: What the Bureau teaches now in the ERT Basic Course is an amalgamation of art, science, and legal policies and requirements that’s both rooted in this past but looks to the future—since instructors say they learn as much from the students, who bring their own insights and approaches to the table during training—as the students do from them.
But that teaching doesn’t start and end with the entry-level course. Passing the basic course unlocks an eclectic menu of advanced training opportunities for ERT members, where they can specialize in things like crime scene photography, responding to a mass-casualty scenario, or operating within a hazardous materials environment.
Any FBI employee can technically apply to join an Evidence Response Team, though competition is fierce, and it takes more than a strong resume to get picked. Though the selection process varies between field offices, some of these intangible requirements include tenacity, passion, and attention to detail, among other factors. According to Duffy:
Duffy: We're not looking for a particular person. Normally, it's a person that’s gonna gravitate toward long hours, getting called on a Friday at 5:00 for a crime scene that they need to drop everything and go handle it, or the weekends or whatever. Someone who's willing to do that and has a passion.
Oprihory: Lanzillo agreed.
Lanzillo: There's no one attribute except, I think, a general curiosity and a willingness to work hard.
Scenes are awful. They're long and they're tiring and they're sometimes the most horrific things you can see. These scenes of violence against other people and the scenes against children—those are the worst. So, you want somebody who is willing to put that aside and work hard.
Oprihory: According to Justyna Sliwinski, a forensic accountant with the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office and member of its Evidence Response Team, compartmentalizing is key to getting the job done under these kinds of circumstances.
Justyna Sliwinski: You have to go if you get a call, and sometimes you see things that you are not really ready to see, so you try to work around it by just thinking about the process and your training and not just the actual scene. You ask yourself, “What’s the best way to help the team and preserve what needs to be preserved?”
Oprihory: By the same token, though, ERT Basic teaches students how to handle more than they think they’re capable of, says Agent America Guevara, a member of the FBI’s El Paso ERT.
America Guevara: I think overall with the FBI, they teach you to push your limits, you know, and do a little more than you feel comfortable with. And I think the same could be said of ERT.
For example, it made me start thinking about like, "How would I feel if I saw an actual corpse or an actual dead body, and how would I react?" I haven't had that, to be honest, in my experience, but just, it’s pushing your limits, I think. It’s been the FBI model for me.
Oprihory: The ERTU has also incorporated resiliency training into the ERT Basic Course to teach students how to avoid physical, mental, and emotional burnout; dispel the stigma surrounding asking for help; and ensure they know about the support resources available to them.
When deciding whether to put their hat in the ring for a spot on an ERT, an applicant’s why—or what drives them to want to do this work—is equally important.
Lanzillo: I think the type of person that is drawn to this work finds hard work a benefit in and of itself. So, I know I do, and that I like the feeling when I'm done with the scene, to look at what I'm leaving and say, "Okay, I did the best I could. I documented the scene, and hopefully it will help move the gears of justice forward towards justice for the victim and, eventually, a conviction at trial."
Oprihory: Long story short, ERTs aren’t for everyone—which is why teams often allow interested employees to shadow them on a response or two. These opportunities let the teams gauge whether interests are a good fit, and potential applicants figure out whether they have the fortitude for it.
Special Agent Chelsea Williams, a member of the FBI Detroit Evidence Response Team, endorsed this approach.
Chelsea Williams: I would say, if you feel like ERT is for you and you wanna give it a try, reach out to the ERT senior team leader in your area. I'm sure they would be happy to have you come along and observe a scene or assist on a scene. You can see if you like it. Hopefully, you will.
Oprihory: For the right candidates—like Duffy, whose trial run in 2001 wound up becoming a deployment to New York to help process debris and human remains from Ground Zero—the desire to serve outweighs the heaviness of the assignment, and everything just clicks.
When all is said and done, though, the beauty—and strength—of Evidence Response Teams are rooted in their diversity.
Lanzillo: So, we've got the creative, you've got the detailed oriented, we've got the former scientists, . We've got the former police. We've got people that don't fit any of those categories that get there and say, “You know what? This is pretty cool.”
And I think you will find if you go to any field office and you ask the executive management about the type of people that are ERT, they're going to tell you, it's their best agents, it's their best employees. It's the people that work really hard and do really good job while they're working hard.
Oprihory: Thanks for joining us on the first leg of our journey into all things ERT.
This has been another production of Inside the FBI. You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. You can also subscribe to email alerts about new episodes at fbi.gov/podcasts.
I’m Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks again for tuning in.