FORT DIX, N.J. – Standing in front of the mobile command center, the head of the FBI’s New York Evidence Response Team briefed investigators.
“We had one, possibly two, explosions based on witnesses,” Special Agent Kimberley Whittle said. “Right now we have several deceased individuals that were at the demonstration. We have what appears to be one, maybe two, craters in the sand; a lot of debris.”
To be clear, the “deceased” in this case are mannequins, all part of a scenario thought up by FBI brass during a joint forensic training exercise. But the crime scene processing and intelligence gathering that followed, under a blazing sun at Fort Dix, N.J., mimicked grisly scenes becoming all too common for the bureau’s evidence technicians.
The frequency of active-shooter terror situations – most recently the attack in Orlando last weekend – has only increased pressure on the bureau to boost forensic team training in exercises like this, so they know exactly how to respond and sort through the carnage for critical clues.
“We were thinking Paris. We were thinking San Bernardino. We were thinking of the attacks that have occurred in West Africa recently against foreigners,” said Whittle as she explained the thought process behind the training event at Fort Dix.
Housed at each of the agency’s 56 field offices, Evidence Response Teams (ERTs) handle crime-scene processing and evidence collection for FBI investigations – they are, in essence, the bureau’s “CSI.” The highly trained units, in many cases, also deploy overseas to assist foreign authorities with complex investigations or work scenes with a nexus to the United States.
ERTs work investigations ranging from public corruption to counterintelligence, but in light of recent global events, the lion’s share of the units’ training efforts have been centered on counterterrorism.
The bitter irony is this exercise took place less than one week before the early morning mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, which left 49 partygoers dead at the hands of a terrorist claiming to act in the name of ISIS. That point underscores the volatile nature of the threat environment the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies are grappling with.
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