For more than a decade, retired IMPD Sgt. Stephen Davis, a member of O’Neill’s adjunct faculty, has given students an experience many people will never have: being on the scene of a bombing and investigating the aftermath. This year, he’ll bring the learnings to life on June 2 and 16 at the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office during the summer 2023 session.
In previous years, the IMPD Bomb Squad, Indianapolis Fire Department, and members from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was already on the scene when students arrived.
“Safety is always first,” Davis says.
Each group of students arrived on-scene with a 25-gallon tub filled with the tools they’ll need for their next project: a tarp, a camera, some sketch pads, and a police report. They’re learning how to investigate a bombing.
Four cars were scattered around the field. One at a time, the explosions began. Smoke poured out of one car, then another, and another, until all four bombs had detonated.
Each of these cars represented a real bombing case investigated by officers.
“The rubber meets the road right there; it’s as real as you can get,” Davis said. “These are potentially lethal blasts. The students’ job is to figure out what happened.”
The two-session course, Investigating Post-Blast Crime Scenes (SPEA-J 260), is open to all students. The first class provides background on what happens at crime scenes, different types of explosions, and how to handle evidence. Students also learn about prominent bombing cases, such as the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.
Davis divided students into teams and assigns each of them a role. The background they learned also ensured they weren’t going into the project blindly.
“Critical guessing skills aren’t critical thinking skills,” he said.
Instead, Davis prepared students for what they would experience during the second class. That’s when they collect evidence and develop theories on what happened.
Davis first conjured up the idea for the one-credit-hour course in 2007 during a 3 a.m. breakfast meeting with bomb squad member and fellow IMPD officer Sgt. Bob Brown. What started out as a class with one car and 11 students has developed into a multi-car scene with nearly 30 students from varying majors across campus.
Davis said the diversity among students is an asset in each investigation.
“It gives everyone a better understanding of another field,” he said. “It’s like any education. We don’t only take criminal justice classes; we take a spectrum of courses that feed into our overall academic experience. It’s a good way to expose students to different fields.”
Marissa Re was a political science major with a Public Safety Management minor when she took the course in 2018.
“I thought it was a unique opportunity to have a hands-on experience,” she said. “Most of these courses are taught only in a classroom. This was a chance to actually get your hands dirty and piece something together. It also provided me the opportunity to learn about a new and uncommon topic.”
Another student in the class, Jayce Kuhn, is a Criminal Justice major. He said the non-CJ majors in his group brought a different perspective to the investigation.
“They’re not used to the criminal justice side of things; that’s not their frame of reference,” he added. “Their perspective means they contribute ideas that you may not have thought about. Those viewpoints are helpful in processing the evidence.”
The teams must work together to collect that evidence, but they have a unique helping hand during the process. Each team is paired with a member of IMPD’s bomb squad for the day.
“The bomb squad members were extremely helpful,” Kuhn said. “They’ve had a lot of experience and provided guidance to us while we worked the case. If we were confused or stuck, they were there to serve as a resource.”
Davis stresses the bomb techs don’t provide answers – just input for students to consider.
Once students collected everything, they started piecing together the case and developing their theories.
“They have to provide me two things: the origin of the blast and the cause of the blast,” Davis explained.
The culmination of the course is the case presentation when each group presents its findings and theory of what happened. It’s a chance to not only show the investigative knowledge they’ve gained but also to work on other skills they’ll need in the future.
Cortney Anderson, a Public Safety Management major, said she learned lessons she can carry with her no matter where her career takes her.
“Take your time and work as a team. It’s important in any job, but especially in police work,” she said. “If you miss something, it could mean someone is wrongly imprisoned. It could also mean someone who is guilty gets to walk free.”
Davis said the class offers an opportunity to learn something new in the classroom and immediately apply it in the field.
“If you want something interesting to do, where you have to really think about what’s going on, this is the class to take,” he adds.