CBRNe Incident – A Complex Crime Scene Part II


By Mr. Kevin Cresswell, Independent Consultant, USA 

“CBRNe decision making will eventually need to balance mission focus and forensic integrity with political/social priorities and the wider public health protection against time and cost constraints and conviction of any perpetrator.” 

In part one of two articles, Kevin Cresswell identified the need for first responders at a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and high yield explosive (CBRNe) incident, to be trained in forensic principles to advance the subsequent investigation. In part two, he argues the case for forensic capability to be at the forefront of response and takes a look at how some countries are at the cutting edge of this CBRNe skillset.

Military operations in CBRNe environments are conducted using specific policies and procedures to minimize or negate CBRNe threats and hazards and continue the mission in the Operating Environment (OE). Prosecutorial evidence on the battlefield does not hold the same importance as those that occur inside the US, where support is likely carried out under different laws and authorities using different doctrine and partners, than similar operations conducted outside the country.  

The US Department of Defense (DOD) CBRN Response Enterprise is structured to support the response to a CBRN incident in the US in support of civil authorities and is able to provide capabilities to manage the consequence of an explosion. The CBRN Response Enterprise does not maintain Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) capabilities (those related to the “e” in CBRNe). 

Any CBRNe incident is a potential crime scene, therefore, first responders from agencies other than those with a ‘law enforcement mindset,’ need to treat it as such. It involves the use of different specialist equipment and techniques designed to recover forensic evidence under the most challenging and hazardous conditions. 

The US has an impressive strategic CBRNe forensic and analysis capability. It allows trained CBRNe forensic investigators to deploy to the scene of a major incident, however, often only long after the first responders have arrived on scene. Where terrorism is suspected, it requires the use of specialist protective equipment and techniques using specialist, approved techniques to visualize, capture and recover digital and trace evidence, and gather information and intelligence as part of a what would now be a major crime investigation. 

Often, however, this capability is not immediately available to the local crime scene investigation (CSI) level. Processing crime scenes that are suspected to involve CBRNe or other potentially hazardous materials requires the use of an amended organized and methodical approach to scene investigation, with an added consideration by first responders, both civil and military, of the subsequent conviction of the perpetrator.  

When confronted with a dead body, you can visually appreciate that a death has occurred, time is on your side, the immediate aim is to discover ‘how’.  In the case of a CBRNe crime scene, this is not that simple: What has happened?  What are we up against?  Is it hazardous or not and if it is how dangerous is it? What form does it take? You are not simply suiting up to prevent cross contamination, you suit up to protect your life. 

The CBRNe crime scene is a seriously more complex situation and the time spent on initial investigation is critical, ©Kevin Cresswell


Every individual who enters the scene has the potential to destroy physical evidence. Physical evidence must be handled and processed in a way that prevents any change from taking place between the time it is removed from the crime scene and the time it is received by the forensic laboratory.   

Processing any crime scene involves seven clear steps (7Ss), these are magnified and protracted in the case of a CBRNe incident, and first responders should have at least a basic understanding of CSI methodology: 

  • Securing the Scene. Usually conducted by the first responders on scene. It is likely to be contaminated areas well away from the source and there may be multiple casualties at the scene. There may be multiple crime scenes that are not immediately evident (e.g., as in the case of Salisbury, UK). 
  • Separate the Witnesses. It is likely witnesses will have departed the scene quickly, become victims or may now have made their own way for medical treatment. Basic ‘policing technique’ of ‘story contamination’ still applies. 
  • Scan the Scene. Take it all in! How many scenes are there, identify the ‘trail’ of the CBRNe crime. The trail is that area which all apparent actions associated with the crime took place, in and out. Metrological data is vital. 
  • See the Scene. These days with the use of robotics and UAVs, photographs and video, as well as increasingly, 3D scanning and LIDAR scanning for radiation hotspots. Reality capture provides the thorough, data-driven documentation that investigators need when analyzing a CBRNe crime scene. 
  • Sketch the Scene. Old school, and difficult in gloves, but still required despite new digital technology, it is a backup and it is simple to understand. 
  • Search for Evidence. Current military equipment lists, to support dismounted reconnaissance, surveillance, and CBRNe site-assessment missions and enable more detailed CBRNe information reports for commanders, often do not include a forensic collection and analysis kit. Something similar to a Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE) kit is perfect and should include, but not be restricted to: confined space sampling, forensic specialist equipment including CBRNe marking kit, digital imaging, scene lighting, exhibit bags, sample cooler. Forensic light sources provide CBRNe examiners and first responders with a powerful tool for the prevention and investigation of crimes involving hazardous materials and environments. There are many more specialist forensic tools to add to the CBRNe response deployment kit. The difficulties responders and investigators using specialist specialist forensic tools, such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) levels 2/3, Level A suit, Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPR), Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) face will lengthen the duration of the search at the CBRNe scene. It will involve multi-layered search and immediate unambiguous identification of CBRNe material. 
  • Secure and Collect Evidence. Integrity of exhibits must be secured from entry and the chain of evidence must be held accountable. A comprehensive determination of all hazardous materials at the crime scene must be accurately detected, identified, monitored and carefully risk-assessed to determine how they should be managed (including the levels of protection required for follow on CSI’s). As wide a selection of detection and identification equipment, as many as possible should be in the team inventory to cover all eventualities, both presumptive and confirmatory, including air monitoring.  
First responders to a CBRNe incident ahead of the ‘dedicated forensic’ team should have additional crime investigation training in-order to preserve admissibility of purpose, ©Kevin Cresswell

Certain aspects of traditional forensics have multiple meanings in CBRNe CSI such as ‘contamination’. Packaging samples with contaminated material in a secure and safe manner in barrier bags for removal safely offsite, is a skillset in itself. In this case it is necessary to prevent the contamination of investigators with hazardous substances, to prevent contamination of the crime scene and evidence with the hazardous material and traditionally to prevent contamination of other materials that entered the crime scene from outside. 

The decontamination of selected samples of evidence before proper packaging and before transportation to the laboratory or police storage room must be carried out in accordance with the relevant local, national and international standards in such a way that the evidence is not invalidated, compromised, destroyed or rendered unusable, noting that not all secured traces can be decontaminated.  

In many countries, including the United Kingdom, Slovakia, Germany and the Netherlands, a select few Hazmat and CBRNe responders do receive advanced instruction on the forensic aspect to an incident. Training first responder technicians to be ‘forensic’ officers makes absolute sense and is a program that should be invested in to mirror end-to-end forensic quality requirements and expectations.  

The LAPD HMU is a highly-specialized team of police officers from varying LAPD and other related backgrounds, comprised of nine Hazardous Material (Hazmat) technicians, ©Kevin Cresswell 

One major city at the vanguard of CBNRe CSI expertise is Los Angeles, where the Police Hazardous Materials Unit (HMU) is an integral component of counter-terrorism response capability, specializing in both weapons of mass destruction and the identification of unknown materials or agents that may pose a threat. Each member of the team receives training and certification at the Technician/Specialist level, the highest level of training offered for hazmat emergency responders in the State of California. 

The HMU can conduct in-depth criminal investigations, often in contaminated, life-threatening environments. They are also a component of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), responsible for investigating domestic terrorism involving Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) WMDs. At a local level, the Unit is a primary member of the Joint-Hazard Assessment Team (JHAT). The JHAT is comprised of personnel from the Los Angeles Fire Department and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. 

HMU members collect and preserve evidence required for successful criminal prosecutions, and can present investigative results to prosecuting attorneys for criminal filings, ©Kevin Cresswell  

In Slovakia, law enforcement created a special unit within the Criminal Police Bureau focused on combating environmental crime and investigating cases where hazardous materials are involved, unofficially called the Enviro-CBRN Police Unit. 

In April 2022, the European Union (EU)-funded a project Law Enforcements In Central Asia (LEICA), in coordination with the EU Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Risk Mitigation Centers of Excellence Initiative, conducted training on CBRNe related crime scene investigations in Koytash, Kyrgyzstan.  

Project LEICA 2022, ©LEICA Secretariat

Students from several government agencies participated in theoretical and practical exercises over five days. The aim of the training was to deliver the best EU practice on CBRNe related incidents response and investigation and to enhance multi-agency cooperation, specifically in relation to CSI and evidence collection operating in CBRN contaminated environment. Project LEICA is funded by the EU, implemented by the French Civipol and Slovak ISEMI Consortium, while Interpol is the official supporting partner of the project.  

The Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) developed integrated methods to speed up the CBRNe mass casualty identification process. These combine concepts from several fields, such as genetics (family DNA), anthropology (physical characteristics) and demographics (geographical distribution). Using this approach, NFI researchers can quickly identify a large number of victims. The NFI supplies investigation teams to carry out a comprehensive analysis of all materials at a CBRNe crime scene, using traditional CSI techniques. 

Crime scene investigation in this context has its own unique, onerous challenges and requirements, broad safety implications and consequently higher standards. The immediate and most cost-effective forensic improvement in response and collection capability is to cross train CBRNe/Hazmat first responders as CSI technicians. 

The value of carefully recovered and preserved evidence can be lost if the chain-of-custody is not properly maintained. ‘Chain-of-custody’ is the weak link in criminal investigations. Careful chronological documentation of evidence to establish its connection to an alleged crime, from the beginning to the end of the forensic process, is crucial to be able to demonstrate ‘traceability’ and ‘continuity’ of the evidence from the CBRNe crime scene to the courtroom. 

For operations in a CBRN environment in homeland CBRNe forensics is a paramount sub-discipline of forensic science and will have a direct impact on criminal proceedings from the outset of the incident, throughout the investigation, until conviction in court.  

About the Author:

Kevin Cresswell is former UK Law enforcement and HM Armed Forces. He has worked in the Defense and Security sector for the last 15 years and is based in Los Angeles, California. 

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