April 30, 2013

A Different Kind of Outreach

Evidence Response Teams Connect with Kids

A member of the Charlotte ERT demonstrates some evidence collection techniques at a local high school.

A member of the Charlotte ERT demonstrates some evidence collection techniques at a local high school.

Members of our Evidence Response Teams (ERTs)—located in FBI offices around the country—often spend their days at scenes of deadly crimes or mass disaster sites collecting evidence to determine what happened and identify criminals or victims.

But once in a while—as their hectic schedules allow—our ERT personnel leave behind the grim nature of their jobs to take part in outreach efforts with young people in their communities, demonstrating forensic procedures and often inspiring their audiences to consider a scientific or other type of career in the FBI.

Over the past couple of years, ERT members have taken part in about 500 community events around the country—usually through the Bureau’s community outreach program—and have reached an untold number of youngsters, from kindergartners to college students. These events include school career days and forensics classes; law school presentations; activities sponsored by youth groups, leadership groups, ethnic community-based groups, other law enforcement agencies, and businesses; summer camps; museum programs; county and state fairs; and police academies.

The forensic procedures most often demonstrated? Using alternate light sources—like ultraviolet—to recover virtually invisible evidence, dusting for fingerprints, casting shoe and tire print impressions, sketching crime scenes, and recovering hair and fiber evidence. Another big draw is a tour of the ERT crime scene truck.

About the Evidence Response Team Program

Lifting FingerprintsOur ERT program, managed by the Evidence Response Team Unit at the FBI Laboratory, includes approximately 1,175 experts located throughout all 56 field offices. Team members—which include both agents and professional employees—have extensive training and experience in forensic science, crime scene management, and the location, recovery, and documentation of physical evidence using standardized methods that ensure the evidence can be used in court.

ERTs can be deployed within the U.S. and abroad for cases where the Bureau has jurisdiction. They also provide assistance, when requested, to domestic and international law enforcement agencies. Among the many capabilities of field ERTs: latent print development and collection, DNA and trace evidence collection, human remains identification and recovery, bullet trajectory analysis, blood detection and collection, and post-blast and arson evidence collection.

The size of each team depends on the case, but there are usually six standard roles during an ERT search: team leader, photographer, sketch preparer, evidence log recorder, evidence custodian, evidence collectors, and in some instance, specialists (like anthropologists, bomb technicians, surveyors, etc.)

During fiscal year 2012, ERTs conducted more than 1,200 searches, processed 600 crime scenes, and provided almost 400 training sessions for local and state law enforcement agencies. Nearly half of all ERT responses involved violent crimes, while a quarter involved terrorism. Other types of cases worked during the year included investigations of criminal enterprises, cyber crime, white-collar crime, and public corruption.

Members of our ERT staff who take part in these events believe in their value, both for the students who participate and for the FBI.Here’s what a few of them had to say about their experiences:

“We were invited to speak at a forensics class at a high school but ended up addressing the entire school. We set up demonstrations, allowing the students to see some of our evidence collection techniques first-hand. They saw how similar and how different evidence collection is when compared to what’s on television.”
- ERT member, Charlotte

“Our presentations almost always include a discussion of the ERT’s 12-step process to manage a crime scene, followed by a show-and-tell of several pieces of ERT equipment and supplies. A common theme at all of these events is that the kids see us as real people. And because some of the youngest kids we meet sometimes don’t seem to grasp what we do, I usually bring a football or baseball to toss around at the outdoor events—plenty of smiles in return!”
- ERT member, Cleveland

“Among other activities, we take part annually in Kids and Cops Day at the Texas State Fair. We prepare an ERT display and let kids lift their own fingerprints off the side of an ERT response vehicle. The feedback we get is always positive, and the event is also very rewarding—many people stop by the booth just to thank us for what we do.”
- ERT member, Dallas

See more reflections below

Students Learn About Shoe Impressions

At a community event, a Houston ERT member shows shoeprint castings to elementary school youngsters.

Special Agent Dayna Sepeck is chief of the Evidence Response Team Unit at the FBI Laboratory. She strongly believes in the value of these interactions between ERT personnel and young people. “By meeting with these kids one on one, school by school, community by community, we hope to get them thinking about working at the FBI when they’re older. We also hope that, as adults looking back on their interaction with us, they’ll be fully supportive of our mission to protect the nation.”

Reflections from ERT Personnel


“The FBI took part in a program at a Native American reservation school. Generally speaking, there is some mistrust of law among Native Americans, but in this situation, it was nice to relate to the kids on a personal level. I set up a fingerprinting station, which was a huge hit with the kids. They left our station smiling and laughing.”
- ERT member, Detroit

“The Houston FBI has partnered with a foundation to introduce at-risk kids to the benefits of science, technology, engineering, and/or math (STEM) education. Part of this process is to introduce the kids to people whose careers require STEM education. Our ERT offers a crime scene investigation day, and those of us who participate enjoy the enthusiasm and inquisitiveness of the kids and always leave the event feeling lucky to have a job that kids think is awesome!”
- ERT member, Houston

“Generally, our presentations are a combination of discussions about how we chose our careers and forensics demonstrations and practical exercises. Students love learning and trying the techniques they see on television, and they really love taking home a record of their own fingerprints. Being a role model to female students is especially fulfilling to me.”
- ERT member, Los Angeles 

“Community outreach helps paint the FBI in a favorable light and explains what we really do—reality vs. TV. These interactions may be the only time these kids meet someone from the FBI, and we may possibly spark an interest in becoming a law enforcement officer. It’s also important, when possible, to show the diversity of our team.”
- ERT member, New Orleans

“We took part in a community outreach event at a Jewish children’s museum. In addition to making them aware of what we do to secure the country and encouraging them to look at us as a potential career opportunity, we’re sending a message that we are working together to build a society that encourages diversity and religious freedom.”
- ERT member, New York

“It’s hard to say how our outreach directly affects the students we talk to….I like to think they come away realizing we are not caricatures or one-dimensional law enforcement stereotypes.”
- ERT member, Philadelphia

“We held a presentation at an event sponsored by a Somali American organization and attended by young people and their parents…many of the adults expressed their interest and admiration for what we do. Sometimes fear makes people unwilling to engage with law enforcement and hurts us in the long run—especially when communities have potential crime threats that need to be reported to the FBI or another law enforcement agency. By using ERT members and their expertise, we can engage communities in a non-threatening and positive environment to educate them about our work.”
- ERT member, Portland

“Each year, our ERT assists at a local high school’s winter break session, which is designed to expose students to future careers—one of the classes is a forensics class. Most of the previous interaction these kids and their families have had with the FBI has not been good, but our presentation introduces the kids to actual FBI employees in a positive setting. The ERT is one of the most requested guests for this class, so the teacher actually schedules us first and then fills in the rest of the speakers afterward.”
- ERT member, San Francisco