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Proposed Law Enforcement Training Facility Includes USF Forensic Experts

Pasco Co. Sheriff's Office
Concept drawing of the Florida Forensic Institute for Research, Security & Tactical Training

When crimes like the Pulse nightclub shooting or the shootings at the Ft. Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport occur, there are two major responses by law enforcement.

First, there's the immediate, tactical reply. Then there's the forensic investigation.

A center that brings training for those two stages together under one roof is in the works in Pasco County, and University of South Florida researchers are playing a major role.

The proposed facility is named Florida F.I.R.S.T., for the "Forensic Institute for Research, Security and Tactical Training." It would be located near the county detention center in Land O'Lakes.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco says, in the age of terrorism, having a place to train officers for different scenarios is important. But this plan adds the scientific investigation that follows an incident to the equation.

"After you have a situation such as a mass shooting, there's a forensics piece," Nocco said at a Monday news conference. "It's going to be a bad day but the more help we can get because unless the suspect is basically taken out at the scene, there will be a trial, and at that trial, we want to make sure their prosecution goes through."

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News
WUSF 89.7 News
USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle speaks at the institute's proposed site on the Pasco Sheriff's Office property in Land O'Lakes Monday, while (from L-R) Rep. Danny Burgess, Sheriff Chris Nocco and County Commissioners Ron Oakley (obscured) & Mike Moore look on.

Researchers from the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at USF, led by forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, will handle the investigative side, with Pasco-Hernando State College also serving as a partner.

"The neat thing about this facility is that it takes everything we provide in training, research and services and it combines it into one area," Kimmerle said. "Whether it's a homicide investigation, missing person investigation or mass casualty investigation, we can come up with different scenarios, look at what other tools and technologies exist out there, set up mock crime scenes, train, test those tools and then hopefully put them into practice when the need arises."

Kimmerle says those new methods and technology include such things as chemical isotope analysis, which looks at the things people digest and other chemicals inside them to determine where they're from. There are also virtual autopsies, which use 3-D computer models to break down the human body, layer by layer.

She adds that by using these new methods to figure out how someone died, a databank of traumatic injury evidence can be built. That would allow future investigators anywhere in the world the chance to look for similarities between their cases and previous deaths.

"There's very few collections with known samples in the country, and that's what ultimately attracts those researchers from around the country to want to come here," Kimmerle said.

Credit Pasco County Sheriff's Office
Pasco County Sheriff's Office
The institute would put law enforcement tactical and K-9 training under the same roof as criminal forensic and anthropology research.

And with those researchers, Nocco said, comes possible partnerships with the forensic industries, making the institute a possible economic engine for Pasco County and the rest of the Tampa Bay region - creating, in the Sheriff's words, "a Silicon Valley of forensics."

"We believe, once this gets off the ground, you're going to have ballistics, IED's (improvised explosive device), other forms of the criminal justice field in forensics, are all going to want to be part of this," Nocco said. "So that's going to be a big boon for this area also."

The institute would also be the first in the state - and one of only seven in the country - offering outdoor forensic anthropology research. That's where bodies donated to the institute, mainly by relatives of the deceased, are placed outside to help researchers figure out how a corpse decomposes in Florida's environment.

A similar facility, sometimes referred to as a "body farm" after Patricia Cornwell's book based on the original research facility at the University of Tennessee, was originally proposed by Kimmerle and USF for eastern Hillsborough County in 2015.

That proposal was scrapped after nearby residents complained about possible smells, groundwater contamination and declining property values.

Kimmerle says things are different with this proposal.

"This facility includes a morgue, an autopsy suite, wet labs, a geochemistry lab, an anthropology lab and storage," she said. "It's as much, if not more an indoor facility than anything outdoor."

"Like research that goes on at any medical school, these (bodies) are anatomical gifts and the research has implications for anthropology and forensics, our passion, but also for medicine and legal medicine and healthcare," she added.

Kimmerle also urged anyone who would oppose the facility for reasons similar to the ones in Hillsborough County to give the research, and the proposed institute, a closer look.

"I think it's a matter of helping people understand what this is about, what the actual issues are, the research potential and the impact to the local community, which is all positive, there's nothing negative that will affect anyone who lives in this area or in the state of Florida," she said.

Kimmerle says around sixty families have expressed interest in donating the remains of loved ones to the facility.

The first body donated is that of Adam Kennedy. The 46-year-old principal of Crews Lake Middle School in Spring Hill was killed in a car accident in January.

His widow, Abigail Kennedy, said her husband wanted to donate his body to science after he had died. The location of the facility, which she said he passed on his way to work, along with the educational aspect of the work, made her decision easy.

"He wanted to impact education, that was his last gift, and that it's going to be this...he's going to be the first body donation, it's so amazing and I'm so excited about this facility coming here," Kennedy said.

Officials also hope the institute will help other families as well, namely loved ones related to the more than 16,000 cold cases in the state of Florida. According to Nocco, one of the initial goals of F.I.R.S.T. would be to create a cold case database.

"If we have the ability to partner with (law enforcement) across Florida to create this database, we'd be able to connect the dots," Nocco said. "If there's someone killing people in Miami, and it's connected to Tampa Bay and on to Jacksonville and into the Panhandle, there's really no way to connect these all together, so this database will be able to connect all the forensics, all the investigative leads and tie that together into one case."

"I think it's very frustrating and a very lonely place to feel like justice isn't served, they're stuck," Kimmerle said about families involved in cold cases. "Whatever resources and support we can provide for that I think helps families understand what happened and whether it results in a conviction or just a step forward, it's information that they didn't otherwise have and it's really about getting every one of those cases into the position that it can best be solved."

Pasco Sen. Wilton Simpson (R-Dist. 10) and Rep. Danny Burgess (R-Dist. 38) will file a bill seeking $4.3 million in state funding for the institute this year. In addition, the Sheriff's Office is seeking private donations, mainly for the K-9 training aspects of the project.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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