Forensic Anthropology Law Enforcement

Jessica Field, Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office

As an anthropology major at Texas State University planning to study forensic anthropology in graduate school, I chose to do my internship with the death investigators at the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office (TCMEO) because of my interest in how forensic anthropology is applied in real world situations, and specifically how it plays a role in this industry. The diverse backgrounds of the investigators made TCMEO a great place for me to learn and pursue my interests. Their backgrounds include forensic science, nursing, law enforcement, and anthropology. Most importantly to my professional goals, TCMEO chooses to utilize forensic anthropology in their case work and it proves to be a very useful tool.

I was fortunate enough to be able to assist the death investigators in a wide range of ways that allowed me to learn and gain hands on experience in the many different aspects of their job. On scene, I assisted in taking pictures, looking for and collecting evidence, communicating with law enforcement and the gathering of information they have to supply to us, holding the materials/supplies for the investigator, and assessment of the overall scene. When I took pictures the investigator taught me what specifically to get in the frame, at what angle and distance, and in what order so that the pictures adequately tell the story of the scene. Then I helped the investigator by looking for evidence pertinent to the decedent’s demise. For example, at one scene where there was suspected cocaine use by the decedent, the investigator and I went through the trashcan, and belongings in the bedroom looking for drug paraphernalia, and ended up finding several small clear baggies and cut straws which we then documented and handed over to law enforcement.

In some cases where the investigator is busy taking pictures or doing other things, I was in charge of getting information from the officers and writing it all down on our ‘report of death’ form. This includes all of the decedent’s personal information, as well as all the circumstances of what happened and the background on the situation. For example, on a motor vehicle accident scene, the officers briefed me by telling me that the vehicle was travelling southbound, at what point they lost control and ultimately how the vehicle got into the resting position that it was in upon our arrival. I will document the story given to me so that the investigator can transfer the information later into a narrative form. In the midst of the investigation, the investigator and I made note of things that we see and wrote them down on the form to add to the final case narrative. On the skeletal remains (SR) cases we received, I was privileged enough to be able to assist in cleaning and analyzing the remains with the investigator assigned to the case. I also helped by editing the anthropology reports and finding pertinent research. On one of the cases, I assisted the investigator by researching through paleopathology books and articles in order to help tentatively diagnose a neoplastic lesion found in the endocranium of a skull so it can be documented in the corresponding forensic report.

My time spent at the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office was very well worth it. This internship is great for providing the opportunity for the intern to interact with the different medico-legal and law enforcement agencies that work together with the medical examiner’s office. You meet many people (detectives, officers, technicians, doctors etc.) and everyone is very willing to teach you new things and give you advice, thus creating excellent network opportunities. There are a lot of hands on experiences, which I really enjoyed as it helped me learn and retain everything going on around me much better. You will see some very amazing and interesting things, and immediately will be able to tell whether this career path is right for you. I must warn that this internship is not for the faint at heart; one must be able to handle the situations professionally and make sure you are mentally prepared for what you may see. If you plan to attain a career in forensics its best to learn early on whether or not you can handle what this path entails. My internship at TCMEO allowed me to explore the real world aspect of the application of forensic anthropology outside the boundaries of the traditional classroom. The experience I gained during this internship will further fuel my ambition towards my future career goals, which definitely include attaining my master’s degree in forensic anthropology and
ultimately working in a setting with hands on application, such as in a medical examiner’s office.

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The Internship Coordinator

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