What I Learned From That

By: Joanne Rumbelow

As public safety divers we train to recover evidence from waterways and to assist investigators as they conduct their investigation. Our world in most places is uninviting, dark, littered with hazards. We train and train to perform our missions.  We rely on those we are assisting to provide us with information to assist them.  We train so that the equipment and people that we utilize on these missions becomes second nature to us.  We use particular equipment to lessen our contact with the water and any of the many contaminants in it.

There is not, and never should there be, a “just a swim” recovery.

Upon receiving a call about a body recovery in one of the canals within our jurisdiction, we responded to the location.  Due to our knowledge of this canal and its hazards, extra divers were to go in the water along with the extra shore support. It was a lovely dive day, sunny, clear, hot, and oh yeah, black water. Upon our arrival, we discovered that a dam had been erected to drop the water level on one side to allow construction to take place on the north side of the dam.  The water level dropped approximately 6 feet on the lower side but due to the dry conditions, water was not flowing over the dam at this time.

As the Crime Scene Investigator assigned to the team, after being briefed on the events leading up to this discovery, I began to document the scene. As I was documenting the scene, I saw the other diver heading towards the water’s edge wearing only a drysuit.

“Hey, what are you doing? I still have to gear up” I called out.

“I’m just going to swim out and bring the body in” was the answer.

“Here we go again, fast and dirty, snatch and grab” I mutter to myself.  “We go over this time and again; the days of snatch and grab are over.  These scenes have to be worked just like a scene on the surface.”

Once the documentation of the scene was complete, I talked to my fellow diver and informed him that drysuits, BCD’s and full face masks will be utilized on this dive and any recovery dive.  “That body may be floating right now, but once we get out there, it may sink and we may be going to the bottom with it or to locate it.  If the gator south of our location starts our way and our sniper only wings it, then we may be having fun with a ticked off gator (not including the gators we know are in that canal and hadn’t seen).  The canal is full of contaminants and the body is one of them. We need to search the area around the body for any possible evidence. If for some reason, a torrent of water comes down the canal, we may go over that dam wall. This isn’t a swim.”

I got that look.

You know the one, the one that says “this is going to take too long, I’ve got places to be.”

Reluctantly, my fellow diver goes and gears up.  As I am getting latex gloves put over my dive gloves, I see my fellow diver swimming out to the body.  I again mutter under my breath “things don’t change just because it’s in the water.  You know not to touch evidence without putting on gloves (and not your dive gloves or patrol gloves if on the surface).”  But he is already in the water, swimming.

We do a surface swim, full face masks in place.  The water is really warm.  “This drysuit should be called a sauna suit” I say to myself.  We reach the body, the area around and below it is searched by feel since there is no visibility and we bring it into shore where the investigators are waiting.

We get to the shore, the bank is steep. Getting the body up the bank is a chore and a half.  This drysuit, aka sauna suit is stifling.  We finally exit the water, get decontaminated by the fire department (where the firefighter on the hose kept getting reminded by his superior not to hit me full blast, I was concerned just a bit) and I begin to take my gear off and I feel… exhausted, exasperated, not sure how to define it.

I go over it all.  We have trained, we have talked about underwater crime scenes.  My team is fortunate enough to have a crime scene investigator assigned to it to conduct these investigations.  “They call for a crime scene unit constantly for scenes on surface because it is a particular crime or they don’t want to mess up an item for DNA and prints, there are a million reasons provided.”  Yet, if it is a scene underwater, they don’t seem to comprehend that there is evidence to be gleaned and it has to be documented, collected and processed just as if it was found on the surface.  The steps of crime scene investigation don’t change or can be ignored just because a scene is underwater.”

I learned that despite the training, despite the safety equipment provided, despite the “you shalls,” despite the risks that lurk, there is still a belief that there are such things as easy public safety dives.  That this is only a body recovery.  This is only a vehicle recovery.  It is until the investigation proves it is a crime scene and the underwater investigation was inadequate.  That is a whole world of hurt in court that you don’t want to be involved in.  I learned that I am still proving and fighting that the days of “snatch and grab” are gone and that the easy way is still the preferred way.  But the fight isn’t over……..

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