The Watch with Will Kennedy: Inside the Mind of Charlotte CSI

CHARLOTTE, NC — Crime Scene Investigators face uncertainty every time they respond to the scene of a crime or accident. They never know what they’ll see, or what the psychological toll could be.

They work long hours. Deal with tremendous stress. And have to balance it all.

In tonight’s Watch, they take me behind the crime scene tape, and into the mind of a CSI.

“They see what most people only see on TV, with a warning,” says CMPD Operational Psychologist Dr. Dave Englert.

Think about the job for a minute. CMPD crime scene investigators deal with death, violence and crime on a daily basis.

“I think it takes a special person to be able to do the job,” says CMPD CSI Rachel Vasale. “I mean you’re not supposed to see dead people everywhere you go.”

What we see, even with our TV cameras, is the outside of this crime tape. But CMPD CSI investigators go inside. And inside can be some of the most horrific crime scenes you can imagine. Images that can be hard to get out of your head.

“Years down the road, and sometimes it just takes reading one sentence of a report, and you can see that deceased victim laying there in, on the concrete,” says CMPD CSI Supervisor Roy Patterson

I had the chance to go behind the tape at scenes.
A dead body on the UNC Charlotte campus. A suspected overdose. The body had been decomposing for days. CSI helped identify the man.

And a deadly shooting on North Tryon Street, where a woman was shot and killed. With help from CSI, CMPD arrested a suspect two days later.

Crime scenes that would be too much for the “normal” person are the CSI’s normal work area.

“You have to have the ability to separate work from your home life,” says Patterson. “And luckily, a lot of us are able to as soon as we walk out the door at night. It’s left behind.”

The workload is heavy. People in this field are prone to burnout. You never know when it will be too much.
CMPD has seen CSI’s with years of experience have to walk off the job, overloaded by the pressures.

But the department has taken steps to help. Dr. Dave Englert was hired in February. He checks in with the CSI unit every morning, and is available to all CMPD employees.

“They’re just walking into a house where somebody’s had the very worst experience of their life,” says Dr. Englert. “And so these people are angry. They’re bitter. Our folks have to be responsible, professional. And now they’re not just dealing with whatever evidence may be there, but also trying to be a little bit of a psychologist themselves.”

They also have a therapy dog, Lucy, to help release some of the psychological stress. And the unit relies on each other.

“It’s really rough on me, but I think on the scene I can hold it in, I can keep it in,” says Vasale. “But then if I need to go cry, or vent, about it; I can do it in my van, or to co-workers who are going to understand what I went through.”

“Everybody leans on each other as much as they can, just because they have that perspective,” says CMPD CSI Kenny Buhr. “They understand what you’re going through, because they’re going through it as well.”

In the end, the job, this mentally and emotionally challenging profession, provides its own reward.

“It’s very satisfying,” says Patterson. “I’ve testified in a handful of cases where the whole situation was just awful. And then you get that guilty verdict because the part you had in the case. It’s very satisfying.”

Through the 3rd quarter of 2016, CMPD CSI worked 48 homicides, 206 rapes, almost 1,500 robberies and more than 3,000 aggravated assaults.