Science and Technology News

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Rapid Fire Investigations – The Real NCIS

Television has a funny habit of making things appear…somewhat strange on screen.

Like hamburgers that look plump and juicy on the commercials, but are usually a lump of meat stuck to a bun.  Or a hair care product that’s designed to make your locks flowing and silky, but you end up with a strange greasy-stringy combo that makes you lose a little faith in reality.

There is no spoon. So eat with your hands.

Or the Matrix.  In general.

In any event, I think most people can assume that what you see on TV is not always an accurate representation of what you get in reality.  For the real-life folks at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the disconnect between what’s seen on screen and what they really do is relatively distinct.

“I’ve worked at headquarters for the last ten years and I have yet to find our morgue,” says Lou N. Eliopulos, division chief for the forensic sciences divisions at NCIS.  Oh and he literally wrote the book on death investigations.   “We don’t have a medical examiner.  We utilize the Armed Forces Medical Examiner out of Dover.”

Okay so there might not be any well-lit glass tables or plucky scientists with zany hair at NCIS headquarters, but in all honesty the real organization is far more impressive and amazing than you might think.

“We have a unique situation at NCIS because we conduct investigations around the world,” Lou explains.

All.  Over.  The.  World.  Now that’s a large area of operation.

“We encounter some unique problems trying to cover the world,” he says with a sense of patient understanding that leaves me floored.  I mean, I have a hard enough time maintaining my cubicle on a weekly basis (the nerd stuff just piles up) but to be responsible for the whole planet?

There are only seven forensic investigators to cover the Earth.  Seven.  That’s like one agent per world wonder.  It also goes without saying that the equipment has to be travel-worthy.  Sometimes that travel requires the agents to go into extreme situations to gather evidence.  And by extreme I mean deadly.

Like, say, in an active theater environment.

In a regular setting, other civilian-based agencies could have days to process a crime scene, but in a combat zone?  These guys have mere minutes.  Well, that adds new meaning to the phrase “fast and efficient”, don’t you think?

“We call it a ten minute crime scene but typically it’s more like 30-40 minutes,” Eliopulos explains.  “When the Marines tell you it’s time to go then it’s time to go.  The mortars are coming in.”

And equipment is an issue as well.  “Having the forensic gear necessary to work a scene is very important.  With the expense of some of the equipment, we can’t have it in every office.  So it’s a challenge from a budgetary standpoint and a situational standpoint in many types of cases.”  But that doesn’t stop the agents from getting the job done or the mission from being completed.  Simply put, NCIS knows how to be faster and more efficient with lighter carry-ons.

And they have advanced crime scene investigation on the battlefield.

They use NASA laser beams on their cameras.  Agents are trained to see evidence, grab it, photograph it, and then get out of dodge in a short amount of time.  That’s why I’m calling it rapid fire investigation.  They have to get it right quickly, and the first time.  A regular police station could take a day or two days to process a scene, but these guys get less than a day to make this happen.

“It’s a unique challenge to process a crime scene in theater when your life might be in jeopardy.”

So I know you might be thinking: Well sure, it’s dangerous but that’s what they’re trained for right?  They’re in the military aren’t they?

Well if you thought that then you’d be wrong.  These NCIS agents that are solving crimes in record time and jet-setting across the globe are all civilians.  Every one of them.

I’d wear mine inside a jacket and make a dramatic show of displaying it to as many people as I could. Which is probably why I don’t get to have one.

“We’re the investigative arm for the Navy and Marine Corps as civilian investigators.  Which is unusual, considering the fact that the other branches have folks in the Army [for example] doing CID.  We’re civilian employees,” says Eliopulos.

And they don’t just deal with homicides, either.  Many of the crimes NCIS deals with are typical of what you might see in most police departments: burglaries, death cases, assault, etc.  The same things that police departments do and then some.  The difference is that NCIS is involved in almost all types of cases involving Navy and Marines.  They are the international police force for the military, and Eliopulos says that’s a part of the charm.

“The job is challenging, it’s rewarding and it’s interesting.  It’s something different every time.”

But there are some elements of truth to be found in the TV version of NCIS.  Technology, for example, plays a big role in the show and in real life.  Whether it’s internet capabilities or the ability to communicate and analyze, technology is a driving force for the future of death investigations.

“There are three things that solve homicides,” says Eliopulos, “witness statements, confessions, and physical evidence.”

It’s that physical evidence that is such a critical part of solving a homicide, he says.  Technology has helped to progress the process of obtaining and analyzing physical evidence.   Interestingly, it has also helped clear people who have been wrongly convicted.

“We used to think in conventional law enforcement that, no matter how tough the investigation, someone would never confess to something they didn’t do.  We know that isn’t true anymore through DNA and physical evidence.”

And speaking of physical evidence, NCIS has the unique opportunity to analyze samples and investigate cases that have gone on unresolved as well.  And by that I mean that NCIS is the only federal agency with an established cold case program.  So why is that, exactly?

“It stems from the fact that they can actually work on a homicide – for example – from start to finish,” Eliopulos explains.  NCIS has the resources and ability to make that happen.  “Whereas the FBI has a multitude of responsibilities associated with various investigations.”

So NCIS is a rapid-fire, international, jet-setting investigation unit that solves crimes for the Navy, the Marines, and beyond.  If you ask me, I’d say that truth is more interesting than fiction in this case.

When it comes down to it, it’s this small but mighty group of investigators that make reality so much more magnificent than the myth.  And that’s a good thing.  I think everyone who works in a field like this needs to have a passion for the job and a sense of accomplishment in what they do.  Eliopulos is no exception to that.

When asked about what keeps Lou in pursuit of the scientific truth?

“To have an opportunity to work on a homicide case that was unresolved, and to bring some resolution to a family’s anguish…That’s pretty rewarding.”

Well said, sir.  Well said.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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