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SPECIAL REPORT: Digging for clues with YPD’s Forensic Services Unit

13 On Your Side's Vanessa Gongora goes behind the scenes of an investigation and shows how crime scenes are examined

YUMA, Ariz. (KYMA, KECY) - From armed robberies to homicides, crime scenes are examined carefully by a special team to gather as much evidence to find the suspects responsible in a timely manner.

Searching for fingerprints, DNA, and shell casings, it's all part of the Yuma Police Department's (YPD) Forensic Services Unit.

Alexx Palacios, YPD's forensic services supervisor says his team wears many hats all for one purpose.

"We work for the community, so my goal is to get those results as fast as we can, provide those to the right people within my department or other departments to catch the bad guys."

The unit consists of four forensic technicians and one supervisor.

The grounds of the forensic services unit started in the 1980's, but over the years it has developed into what it is now. 

Palacios says their unit is the only forensic lab in the southwest area.

So they stay busy assisting other agencies throughout Yuma County including the Yuma County Sheriff's Office (YCSO), Somerton Police Department, San Luis Police Department, and local FBI. 

This year already, over 330 evidence requests have been completed. 

"So whenever we respond to a homicide scene it all depends on what the scene consists of," says Palacios. "But we might be doing photography, we might be collecting evidence, we might be processing for prints, we might be processing for DNA, conducting some trajectory to determining bullet paths."

They also take photos of shoe and tire impression, even recover video footage, anything that can help with a possible break in the case.

Gathering evidence from a scene may take a few hours or it could take days, Palacios says it all depends.

Searching for invisible fingerprints left behind is a big step in their process.

Once they find evidence, it's then processed in the lab.

Tyler Boom, YPD's forensic technician demonstrates how fingerprints are found and how they transfer the prints to the system.

"So latent prints are those prints that are left that you can't necessarily see just looking at them. So we have a brush and some black powder and we just take a little bit of the powder and brush it over and the surface," explains Boom. "And the powder only really sticks to where those latent prints have been left and it makes them much more visible and then we're able to collect them."

After the team finds prints, they pull the prints off using a piece of tape, then transfer them to an index card to help preserve the prints.

Each person's fingerprints are very unique and different from one another.

"We can enter that into the ABIS system, which is a database that allows you too compare those prints to other known prints from other individuals and we can hopefully find out who left those prints and help solve a crime," Boom describes.

Palacios says they have helped identify about 230 suspects this year so far and about 260 in 2022 from processing fingerprints alone.

They even look at palms and joints and if gloves are used, the forensic unit will recover the glove impression.

Another tactic to find evidence, the team will use fog to establish the possible trajectory of bullet paths from a used weapon at the scene.

They then take photos to prove their determination to the jury if the case proceeds to court.

"We use a laser and we also use some fog," explains Palacios. "So what it does is whenever we add the fog, it actually shows the path of the bullet."

And if there's shell casings found, a system called the "National Integrated Ballistic Information Network" also known as NIBIN is used for ballistic imaging.

BRASSTRAX is a part of the NIBIN system used to put shell casing entries into the database.

"We find the right orientation, we open this up, we insert the shell casing here with the right orientation and it goes into the system and what it does is it takes different images of the shell casing used in different light angles," Palacios says. "So it provides a lot of detail from the shell casings which is what helps us develop those leads."

The NIBIN system has helped YPD's Forensic Services Unit with 50 leads so far in 2023.

"We can definitely say this gun was involved on this scene or if we don't have a gun, we can determine and say we have leads between shooting, drive by shooting to an aggravated assault where we don't have a suspect," Palacios continues. "We might not have a gun but we can say this weapon was used on both scenes."

According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the NIBIN system was established in 1997 and about 145,000 NIBIN hits in the U.S. were confirmed during its 25 year history.

One person on the forensic team is always on call and Palacios says they are lucky to have many resources to help them solve crimes efficiently and effectively.

"These guys and myself are really motivated whenever we go out to the scene to get the results as fast as we can. So yes, we carry different hats in the PD, but that's the cool part because we have the ability to go out to the scene, process the scene. We have the ability to process the evidence here in house and we also have ability to analyze those prints and potentially develop leads."

Palacios says they usually get results within a couple of days to a couple of weeks, which they then hand over to the investigations department.

The forensic services unit is dedicated to solving crimes and closing cases.

YPD keeps evidence up to 100 years old depending on the offense and over 75,000 pieces of evidence are still in custody.

Remember, if you see something, say something.

You can call 78-crime to report a crime and remain anonymous.

Article Topic Follows: Special Reports

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Vanessa Gongora

Vanessa Gongora joined the KYMA team in 2022 and is the anchor/producer for CBS at 4 p.m.

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