Some local high schoolers will get a chance to get an up-close look at the many components of forensic investigations — via a weeklong summer camp in Land O’ Lakes hosted by the Pasco Sheriff’s Office and FIRST (Florida’s Forensic Institute for Research, Security & Tactics).
The FIRST Forensic Summer Camp is scheduled for July 20 through July 24. Each camp day runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Lessons and demonstrations will take place outdoors, as well as inside training and read-off rooms at the Pasco Detention Center, 20101 Central Blvd., in Land O’ Lakes.
The camp is open to high schoolers ages 15 to 18. Enrollment is limited to 24 students. Students must ensure transportation to and from the camp each day.
The camp ultimately will give students the chance to observe many aspects of the criminal justice system in action.
Students will receive hands-on learning and an opportunity to participate in an outdoor mock crime scene/field recovery.
Additionally, students will participate in forensic laboratory exercises to learn the science and techniques used by forensic investigators. The camp also includes demonstrations of K9s and unmanned aerial systems, or drones.
Some of the topics and activities covered throughout the week include:
- Overview of the basic human anatomy and how to differentiate human from nonhuman bones
- Introduction to drones, their ability to assist in mapping outdoor crime scenes, as well as a drone demonstration
- Specific techniques used to recreate a crime scene and/or a suspected burial
- Introduction to human remains detector dogs and how they can assist in located a buried body or surface remains
- Basic crime scene investigation techniques
- How to conduct a forensic archaeological dig in order to recover skeletonized remains, then presenting field recovery findings to fellow campers
Overseeing the camp is FIRST forensic science administrator Austin Polonitza, who holds a master’s degree from Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) in science and forensics studies, with a focus on human identification and trauma analysis. He joined the sheriff’s office in 2019, after working as a graduate-level lab assistant at FGCU.
Polonitza said the camp will give teens “real-world experience” into forensic investigations, including the meticulous detail and group work needed complete a task, like finding or identifying a missing skeleton.
Unlike what’s often portrayed on television dramas, Polonitza explained forensic work and solving a case goes well beyond technology and 3D renderings, and it doesn’t come together as quickly as some people might think.
“The CSI effect is real and definitely excites a lot of people about the job,” Polonitza said, “but unfortunately these things don’t get solved in 40 minutes.”
Other instructors leading campers throughout the week include Dr. Heather Walsh-Haney, associate professor and program leader for forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University; Pasco Sheriff forensic supervisor K9 handler Sue Miller; Pasco Sheriff head K9 forensic trainer Jimmy Hall; and, representatives from Quiet Professionals, a Tampa-based government and commercial defense contractor specializing in cutting-edge drone technology.
Polonitza said the opportunity for high schoolers to learn from various professionals and get hands-on experience in forensics and related disciplines “will undoubtedly give them some discovery and direction of what they would like to pursue in their future careers, or even academic degrees.”
Polonitza himself became interested in crime scene investigations as a youth growing up in the Fort Myers, noting he “always had a drive for puzzles, mystery, kind of uncovering things as you go along and follow the clues.”
He realized forensics was a viable professional path, when the Lee County Sheriff’s Office made a presentation at a high school career day.
“I kind of fell in love with forensic anthropology and the hands-on, practical side of things where I could look at a piece of bone, identify a landmark, and be able to tell which side of the body it came from and which bone it is. …It excites me about the field, and I want to share that to others who have interest in forensics, as well.”
Polonitza said the first-of-its-kind forensic summer camp will be held annually, with future demonstrations planned at the FIRST campus, as more buildings and infrastructure come online over the next couple years. There are also plans to develop outreach programs for kindergarten through 12th grade schools and collaborate with other local universities, he said.
The FIRST campus is part of the sheriff’s office enterprise fund. It is promoted as a forensics and training facility that strives to become a collaborative resource for universities, forensic scientists and law enforcement, serving as a one-stop shop to improve crime scene operations and investigations in the realm of homicides, missing persons cases and so on.
For cost and enrollment information and for other details, email or visit floridafirsttraining.org/#/camp.
Published July 08, 2020