A modest home, previously unoccupied, is visited by a team of forensic specialists. Once inside, the group moves methodically throughout the house, carefully examining the scene to document facts and collect evidence with the deliberate precision that this task requires in the real-world. Except they are not there to investigate an actual crime; it’s a simulation to prepare the next generation of experts in this field.
The scenario routinely takes place on Bowman Avenue, just south of campus, thanks to a unique partnership between the City and the University of Indianapolis, leading to the groundbreaking opportunity to establish the Criminal Justice Education Lab, the first-of-its-kind in the state.
The Lab, launched in 2018, provides valuable experiences for students and training opportunities for the Indianapolis-Marion County Forensic Services Agency (IMCFSA).
“Every course we teach has real-world, experiential learning opportunities,” said Dr. Kevin Whiteacre, associate professor and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice.
Such experiences are crucial to graduates who pursue careers in this area because of time spent developing field skills. The department celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2017, making it one of the longest-running criminal justice programs in Indiana.
Students practice securing and evaluating a crime scene, interviewing witnesses and victims, and gathering information. Preservation, documentation and protection are essential skills and the Lab gives students a place to gain that firsthand knowledge early in the program.
“The Lab creates an environment similar to what one might expect arriving on a crime scene. This hands-on approach to learning can open a student’s eyes to something that’s more challenging to understand in a verbal lecture,” said Olivia Spiegel ’21 (criminal justice).
The positive impact of the Criminal Justice Education Lab extends into the broader community, as well.
Before a new field agent is put to work, agents visit the Lab regularly to conduct tests and training exercises using simulated crime scenes.
“We needed a place to simulate what a true crime scene would be like. Having a more complex, realistic training facility allows us to put more crime scene specialists to work in the city at a time when we desperately need the help,” said IMCFSA Crime Scene Supervisor Christine Hagan.
“The UIndy Crime Lab provides better training for our specialists, which means they are prepared to work at real crime scenes and provide better public service. That value is huge,” said Doug Boxler, a forensic scientist in the firearms unit. He’s worked at IMCFSA for 18 years and began teaching a class at UIndy in fall of 2018.
Boxler, whose class meets weekly at the Lab, said it would’ve been a “dream come true” to have access to a similar facility when he was training to be a forensic scientist.
“Rather than using a public park or abandoned property, the Lab offers awesome opportunities for practical crime scene simulations,” said Boxler. “It’s a great benefit to new people entering the field. Violent crime rates are high; we have to use all available resources to do our jobs better.”
The new learning space also contributes to the revitalization of the University Heights neighborhood. The school purchased an unoccupied home and partnered with IMCFSA to have the lot rezoned for educational use.
The IMCFSA partnership can also connect students to a variety of networking opportunities and potential jobs.
“In the hiring process, UIndy criminal justice students automatically stand out above other candidates because of the familiarity this partnership facilitates.”
– Christine Hagan
IMCFSA Crime Scene Supervisor