Construction is now underway in Land O’ Lakes on a forensics and training facility that will offer a collaborative resource for universities, forensic scientists and law enforcement.
Ground was broken during a Sept. 19 ceremony for the K9 Tactical Center/Florida’s Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactics, or F.I.R.S.T for short.
The complex will be next to the Adam Kennedy Memorial Forensics Field, otherwise known as the “body farm” that sits on 5 acres next to the Land O’ Lakes Detention Center, off U.S. 41.
The forensics research and training center will strive to improve crime scene operations and investigations in the realm of homicides, missing persons cases and so on.
It will include a laboratory for research and forensic casework, classrooms, a morgue and evidence storage.
The educational focus will be on forensics, anthropology, geochemistry, legal medicine, forensic intelligence, aviation reconstruction and cyber forensics.
Technology, too, will play a major role in the research, including virtual autopsies with 3-D scanning and chemical isotope analysis.
The K-9 portion of the project, meanwhile, will be the first time Pasco has had a dedicated facility for tactical training for the K-9 unit, the Pasco Unified SWAT team and sheriff’s deputies.
When completed, the F.I.R.S.T campus also will house training facilities in the arenas of cybersecurity and unmanned vehicles.
The $4.3 million state-funded project is expected to be complete by late 2019.
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said the campus — particularly the forensic anthropology “body farm” fields — will have international draw, because of the location’s subtropical climate.
The sheriff also said the facility overall will advance national policies for public safety, in the realm of forensics, K-9 tactics, crisis management, design thinking and so on.
“We’re going to be training people from all over the country,” Nocco said. “This is not about the Pasco Sheriff’s Office. This is about all of us. This is about saving lives and making our community better.”
He added: “The amazing thing is, as we keep building this out and as we break ground, more partners keep coming on and on, and we keep expanding.”
Once complete, the forensics center will be the first in Florida, and only the seventh in the nation.
The University of Tennessee in Knoxville started the first forensic training and research center in the 1970s. Other facilities are at Western Carolina University, Sam Houston State University, Texas State University in Carbondale, Southern Illinois University and Colorado Mesa University.
A one-stop resource
But, F.I.R.S.T is touted as the first true cooperative effort between academia and practitioners.
Academic partners include the University of South Florida, University of Florida, Florida Gulf Coast University and Pasco-Hernando State College, among others.
The project already has some Florida-based forensics scholars buzzing.
Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield is a forensic anthropologist and research assistant scientist at the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida, in Gainesville.
For her, F.I.R.S.T means having a one-stop resource for university-based forensic labs from all across the state.
“Why should we not work together? First, it gives us a chance to share our ideas between ourselves. It’ll produce more research for the whole state,” said Stubblefield, who plans to bring her graduate students to the campus “on a cyclical basis.”
Stubblefield also noted the forensics center will facilitate long-term studies on body decomposition rates in subtropical climates, something she said is presently “not well researched.”
“That whole overall decomposition area — we’re still bringing the picture together,” Stubblefield said. “I know (F.I.R.S.T) will help with research, because there’s just not enough data.”
The possibilities also excite Dr. Heather Walsh-Haney, an associate professor who chairs the Department of Justice Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, in Fort Myers.
Walsh-Haney has been studying forensic anthropology for 21 years. She gets called upon to help solve anywhere between 80 to 110 cases every year across the state.
She, like Stubblefield, stressed the need for more comprehensive studies on body decomposition rates within subtropical conditions, for crime-solving and death investigation purposes: “It doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to realize our temperatures are hotter, we have different animal scavenging habits, our plants are different and our soils are different.”
Once F.I.R.S.T is in operation, she and her group of graduate students plan to visit on a bi-weekly basis.
Aside from conducting forensic research studies and experiments, she said they’ll also assist detectives and other law enforcement officials on an assortment of hot and cold cases.
The complex, she said, “highlights the fact that we have to have community involvement in order to solve cases.”
She added: “The only way we can catch the folks who perpetrate these crimes is through science and the collaboration with law enforcement.
“This facility here, smack dab in the center (of Florida), is a wonderful location for scientists and law enforcement from the south and north to come here and train.”
Meantime, local officials believe F.I.R.S.T will be an economic driver for the county.
Bill Cronin, president/CEO of the Pasco Economic Development Council, who was present at the groundbreaking ceremony, stated F.I.R.S.T will have an economic impact to the county of at least $7.8 million in its first year, with a recurring impact of $2.8 million each year “thanks to the hundreds of visitors that are going to come here and train.”
Furthermore, he noted the facility will attract other forensics-related businesses and organizations to Pasco, possibly along U.S. 41.
“This particular location will help us activate the part of U.S. 41 that’s been fairly difficult for us to draw business into,” he said, “and it takes what was an otherwise non-producing government-owned site and creates a real asset for economic development.”
Published October 3, 2018