Gritty scenes of the aftermath of murder, robbery and arson have long been fodder for television and film, but the day to day role of real life crime scene examiners can be even more varied.
In Louth, the Scenes of Crime unit are five trained gardai based at Collon Garda Station, operating on a county wide basis, and are among the busiest in the country.
"Certainly outside of the big cities, the unit here in Louth would have a large volume of call outs,” says Garda Aidan Hanlon, one of the longest serving crime scene examiners in the county.
“With Dundalk and Drogheda, two of the largest towns in Ireland, the number of cases we are called to every year is only going up.”
"Things were a lot quieter during Covid of course, but we are averaging 400 cases in the first few months of this year,” a figure which he admits is likely to be much higher by the end of the year.
"Our busiest year was 2013, with over 1,700 jobs recorded,” he adds, admitting that the impact of the financial crash was hitting home by then.
Responding to everything from a broken window in a home or business, to the most horrific of murder cases, the role is, he admits “not everyone’s cup of tea, but is definitely really varied. ”
Beginning his career as a garda on the beat, he switched tack in the early 2000’s, when the offer to work on the crime scene team came up. Nearly twenty years later, he admits there is “very little you don’t see in this job.”
The huge popularity of tv shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and it’s many spin offs sparked a surge in interest in criminal forensics, but came under fire for inaccurate portrayals of real life crime scene examiners.
"Shows like that have investigators not only collecting evidence, but analysing it and interviewing witnesses as well, when in reality the roles are all separate,” says Garda Hanlon.
“Our job is essentially to collect the evidence, whatever that may be, and to interpret the scene as we find it.”
As much as emotion has to be set aside for the role, he adds that crime scenes examiners are cognisant of how different people will react in very different ways to a crime being committed.
"We are always conscious that when we go out to a scene, maybe to a window or a door having been damaged in an elderly person’s home, that it could be really traumatic for them. it’s criminal damage, but it could also affect how safe they feel in their home.”
Sudden deaths, arson, criminal damage, and road traffic accidents are among the most frequent case types for the crime scenes unit.
But despite the broad spectrum of cases, he adds, most will be met with a common approach.
"Fingerprints and DNA are regularly collected, at a lot of crime scenes, whether a car or a person is involved. Photographs and videos are also a key part of evidence across a range of scenes of crime.”
"There are many things which can be evidence, dash- cams have been a good source in recent years for the investigation of road accidents.”
On other days, the team could find themselves bagging a brick or a piece of glass to be analysed, or having to take a wall apart to remove a bullet fragment lodged within it.
"It just depends what has happened, and often we don’t know what to expect until we get to the scene”
Clothing can be a major source of evidence, and with new facilities soon to come online at the Collon base, blood stained clothing can be placed in a dedicated room to air dry before being sent for analysis.
"If someone has been involved in an altercation, and there is blood in the clothing, it may well become evidence. It has to be left to dry naturally though, and out of sunlight, so we’re glad to be able to have a facility for that.”
Crime scene examiners are often called to attend post mortem examinations, to take photographs and to collect evidence from the body, including bullets, clothing, and samples from nails, hair, etc.”
"It’s definitely not a job that will suit everyone. In fact it is one of the first questions I would ask someone considering this type of work, how would you feel about collecting evidence from a dead body? We could be called out to a house where someone has been dead for quite a while, and even if it was a natural death, the conditions we find them are definitely not easy to deal with. But if you can get past that, you just need to accept we are there to do a job, and we get on with it.”
One true to life aspect of crime tv shows is that any piece of evidence collected at a crime scheme could ‘make or break’ criminal proceedings that follow.
"It’s definitely something that is at the forefront of your mind going out to a scene, no matter what the incident is. We are collecting the evidence always with a mind to how it might be included in a book of evidence for court.”
For that very reason, protecting the “chain of evidence” is absolutely vital to the work of crime scenes examiners, noting times, places and people who are handed evidence.
All of this, scenes of crime examiners are aware, could be a potential focus for scrutiny during a court case.
Despite the challenges, he admits there is “huge satisfaction in seeing a photograph you took or evidence you collected becoming a part of a successful prosecution.”
"It’s why we do what we do, and it does make a difference when the evidence has helped,” say Garda Hanlon.
"No matter what we face in this job, you can’t let it keep you awake at night. Yes there are a lot of traumatic scenes the team here have come across, but you have to leave it at the door when you go home at night.”