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 May 31 and June 14 during the summer 2019 session.
The IMPD Bomb Squad, Indianapolis Fire Department, and members from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are already on the scene when students arrive.
“Safety is always first,” Davis says.
Each group of students arrive 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 are scattered around the field. One at a time, the explosions begin. Smoke pours out of one car, then another, and another, until all four bombs have detonated.
Each of these cars represent a real bombing case that was investigated by officers.
“The rubber meets the road right there; it’s as real as you can get,” Davis says. “These are potentially lethal blasts. The students’ job is to figure out what happened.”
The course, Investigating Post-Blast Crime Scenes (SPEA-J 260), is open to all students. The initial 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 divides students into teams and assigns each of them a role. The background they learn also ensures they aren’t going into the project blindly.
“Critical guessing skills aren’t critical thinking skills,” he says.
Instead, Davis prepares students for what they’ll experience during the second class. That’s when they see the explosions up-close, 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 says the diversity among students is an asset in each investigation.
“It gives everyone a better understanding of another field,” he says. “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.
“I thought it was a unique opportunity to have a hands-on experience,” she says. “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 says 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 says. “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 says. “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 collect everything, they start 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 says.
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 to also work on other skills they’ll need in the future.
Cortney Anderson, a public safety management major, says she learned lessons that 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 says. “If you miss something, it could mean someone is wrongly imprisoned. It could also mean someone who is guilty gets to walk free.”
Davis says 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 says.