As a patrol officer, it is important to have a basic understanding of death and decomposition as the basis of any death investigation. When responding to a call involving a deceased individual, it is crucial to approach the scene with caution and to take note of any potential evidence and you should investigate routine deaths as suspicious in the event the facts prove otherwise. Before beginning the investigation, it is necessary to determine if the death is natural, accidental, suicide, or a result of foul play.
In cases involving decomposition, it is important to be aware of the various stages of decomposition and what each stage may indicate about the time of death. Additionally, the odor of decomposition can be a strong indicator of the advanced stage of decay and should be taken into account when approaching the scene. As you may know, the first stage of decomposition occurs within the first few hours up to a couple of days after death. During this stage, the body may become discolored and exhibit signs of rigor. The presence of insects, such as blowflies, is common during this stage, as they are attracted to the body’s warmth and moisture.
The next stage occurs several days after death. During this stage, the body will begin to release gases that cause bloating and swelling. This stage is also marked by the presence of a distinctive odor, which can be a strong indicator of decomposition. If you’ve been in law enforcement for any length of time, you’ve probably smelled this before.
The third stage occurs several days to several weeks after death. During this stage, the body begins to break down and the flesh begins to slip away from the bones. The body may also become covered in mold and fungi, and the odor of decomposition will become stronger.
The final stage of decomposition is called dry decay, which occurs several weeks to several months after death. During this stage, the body is largely reduced to bones, and the odor of decomposition will have diminished significantly.
It is important to understand that death and decomposition investigations can be complex and as a patrol officer, you play a vital role in death and decomposition investigations. Your actions at the scene and your ability to preserve and collect evidence can have a significant impact on the outcome of the investigation and the ability to bring those responsible for foul play, if any, to justice.