Mystery Writer Patricia Cornwell Brings CSI Classes to Cambridge Police

November 11, 2012

Author Patricia Cornwell is world renowned for her best selling detective stories featuring intrepid medical examiner, Dr. Kay Scarpetta. The detailed crime scene investigations in the novels have inspired TV shows such as CSI and Criminal Minds.

Cornwell stays on top of the latest CSI tools and research through the National Forensic Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee. She helped found the Academy, and continues to support its mission to inform law enforcement in the latest crime fighting tools. But not many police departments can afford to spare staff and money to train in Tennessee. So Cornwell has decided to give back to a local police department by bringing the training to Cambridge, MA – where her latest novel – The Bone Bed – is set.

Author Patricia Cornwell and Cambridge Detective Dan Marshall look on as an instructor from the National Forensic Academy demonstrates crime scene management techniques
Photo Credit: Cambridge Police Department

In an abandoned MIT building, a forensic investigator shines a light on a seemingly  un-sinister looking swab of patterned carpet. “If you take the light away, you’re not going to be able to see anything.” He explains, then goes on to show the effect under the light,  “But in the cross hairs, there’s hair and fiber,” A rapt group of police detectives have gathered around him for the demonstration. 

That demonstration is part of a one-week intensive training course in forensic crime solving. Seven of the country’s top investigators have come to Cambridge to show the latest technology and tools to a select group of Cambridge, Everett, Harvard and MIT police. Cambridge Deputy Commissioner Paul Ames has signed 21 of his 40 detectives up for the course. To Ames, the time his staff spends in the classroom is well worth it. “We get some in depth training for our detectives, to include photography, DNA, blood spatter.” he says, “Anything you can imagine in that 40-hour program, it’s going to elevate the level of expertise of our detectives.”

Throughout the week, detectives split time between classroom study, and hands on exercises, which include photography techniques, observation exercises, and evidence analysis.  Among the diverse group of men and women participating, a lone figure stands out. Author Patrica Cornwell takes notes on her pocket sized spiral pad, and every so often interrupts the instructor with a question or observation.

Cornwell is not unfamiliar with most of the material covered. The author has spent a lifetime working with law enforcement, researching the latest forensic and crime technology to provide accurate scenarios for her Kay Scarpetta readers. About 4 years ago, she approached the Cambridge police department to request a ride along with one of their detectives. That task fell on Detective Dan Marshall. “She had come in and I was just to give a writer a tour.  I quickly learned it wasn’t your average writer, it was a best selling author.” Marshall recollects, “I gave her an exceptional tour, and since then we’ve remained good friends.”

That friendship developed into a greater partnership between Cornwell and the Cambridge Police Department. The author paid $20,000 for Marshall to attend a 10-week training at Knoxville’s National Forensic Academy. But when Marshall returned, he and Cornwell realized other detectives would benefit from similar training. 

“My big belief is to try to bring training to the real people,” Cornwell says. She and Marshall collaborated on the next step. “We said, look, not everybody can go away for 10 weeks. What if we brought the Academy to Cambridge?” 

So they did. With Cornwell picking up the $30,000 tab. In the meantime, the author, who has brought her character Kay Scarpetta to Cambridge, developed a deep appreciation for the city and its police force. 

“In Cambridge you basically have a tremendously complicated international city in a very small area.” Cornwell says, “There’s no other place like it on earth, in my opinion. It’s like London, or New York in 5 square miles.” 

For the mystery writer, the city offers endless intrigue opportunities, “We have a sitting President that can show up,” Cornwell explains, “or the head of a foreign country. It’s an extremely huge responsibility for the police.” 

The Cambridge police have reciprocated Cornwell’s generosity with a crystal plaque to symbolize their appreciation. And an appreciation that the training provided by the forensic investigators could make or break a case. 

“In this age of CSI, it’s true, we need to approach the crime scene as technically as we can because it’s getting more and more difficult to get convictions in court with just eyewitness testimony. You need hard evidence.” says Deputy Commissioner Ames. “The  more we can train our detectives the more professional we can be, the more success we have in prosecuting cases.”

Visit the Cambridge Police Department Facebook Page to see more photos.


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