FARMINGTON -- A bloody knife, a soda can or something as simple as a partial fingerprint can lead investigators to the person who committed an assault, a murder, a robbery or a burglary.
But how that evidence is collected, measured, processed, tested and stored requires hours of training. And now, a national movement is pushing to certify crime scene investigators, said Davis County Sheriff's Sgt. Dave Beardall.
Beardall oversees and works with the four deputies in the sheriff's CSI unit.
Beardall said the movement to standardize how CSI investigators do their job is a good one because it increases the odds of catching the bad guys and of exonerating the innocent.
The sheriff's office is working toward two goals: having its deputies certified in their areas of expertise, and earning accreditation from the Forensic Quality Services, a national organization.
"I would like to see us pass our first audit by the end of next year," Beardall said.
The accreditation process involves teams from outside of Utah coming here to document the procedures, methods and proficiency of the county's CSI, so it is expected to take several years.
The sheriff's office has had a CSI unit since the late 1960s, said Davis County Sheriff Chief Deputy Kevin Fielding. The unit gets called to process crimes in the county and in other jurisdictions when asked.
It was involved in processing the crime scenes of Michael Dunn's stabbing death in Bountiful, the deaths of two West Point brothers, the shooting death of Gregory Nance by his son at a Kaysville motel and a recent bank robbery in Woods Cross.
It has been called to investigate officer-involved shootings, home invasions and other crimes. It also gets called out three to eight times a week to investigate unattended deaths, most of which turn out to be nonsuspicious.
The unit also is called many times a week to process crimes involving a vehicle, whether that vehicle is stolen or items are stolen from the vehicle, Beardall said.
And each week, at least a few dozen marijuana cases need to be confirmed.
The county lab, like all local agency CSI labs, is not equipped to test other drugs, like heroin or methamphetamine. Those samples are sent to the state crime lab. Also, the county lab is not equipped to test for DNA.
The push to certify investigators and accredit CSI units began after a report by the U.S. Department of Justice was published in 2009.
"Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward" began the discussion among CSI officials regarding standards, but not without controversy.
It chastised crime scene investigators across the country in almost every field except DNA, said Mitch Pilkington, supervisor of the Layton Police Crime Scene Unit.
"When it first came out, everyone was offended," he said.
Pilkington said crime investigators take pride in their work, but how one CSI unit does its job could be different from how another unit does its job.
There was not a specific way or standard on how fingerprints were collected or tire tracks processed, Pilkington said. The only area where the standards had been set was in DNA.
Pilkington said it is a good idea to have CSI units certified, but it will take time.
Collecting evidence is forensic science, Beardall said, and requires scientific methods to prove or disprove an event happened.
Certification is not mandatory -- yet, said Jay Henry, director of the Utah State Crime Lab, aka Utah Bureau of Forensic Services.
"Sergeant Beardall is forward-thinking. I hope (CSI units) all become accredited," he said.
"It just makes the process better because you only get one chance to collect evidence at the crime scene."
Accreditation and certification shows "you're doing quality work," Henry said. "Lots of labs are doing quality work, but having those documents is what attorneys love."
The certification documents show evidence has been collected using a method approved across the country.
Evidence can include latent fingerprints, blood patterns, footprints, tool marks, crime reconstruction and forensic photography.
Davis County Sheriff's Deputy Chad Nicholls is working toward his certification as a latent fingerprint analyst. "Latent" means hidden or invisible, and it's Nicholls' job to bring those fingerprints to light.
The sheriff's office received a grant to send Nicholls to Florida for training as a latent-fingerprint examiner.
Nicholls said he spent 10 weeks, in two-week increments, there.
In January, he will take the tests to receive his certification, but it doesn't stop there. He will have to recertify every two years, which means continued training and testing.
The technology of lifting fingerprints is about 100 years old, Nicholls said. What has changed is how long it takes to search for the match to a fingerprint.
Fingerprints found at a crime scene are rarely as complete as the ones on fingerprint cards. Crime-scene prints are mostly partials, Nicholls said.
And Nicholls takes those partials, puts them into a computer and lets the computer find possible matches, a process that can take two hours.
The computer will narrow the search to about 30 possible matches, leaving Nicholls to compare them until he finds the best match.
It's a process that's much faster than in the 1980s, when Fielding had to try to match a partial fingerprint to ones on fingerprint cards stored in filing cabinets at local or federal agencies. Often, it would take him several weeks or months to find the match.
When Nicholls earns his certification after all of his training in latent-fingerprint analysis, it will help the CSI unit earn its accreditation.
But more importantly, Beardall said, all the training will help investigators "get a better understanding of the circumstances" of what happened at a crime scene.
Contact reporter Loretta Park at 801-625-4252 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaParkSE.