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New crime scene vehicle benefits Anchorage police officers

Suzanna Caldwell
Loren Holmes photo

Cue music by The Who. The “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” theme song could serve as a fitting backdrop as the Anchorage Police Department unveiled its new crime scene vehicle Wednesday, a project years in the making and intended to bring the department into the 21st century when it comes to processing evidence.

You may have seen it already. The off-white, 38-foot-long vehicle has been in the department's hands since Oct. 1, and has so far been on eight calls in Alaska's largest city. The custom-built, diesel-powered vehicle that will be dispatched to a variety of major crimes -- from homicides to kidnappings, robberies, officer-involved shootings and suspicious deaths.

The vehicle replaces the bright blue, 34-foot-long van the department has used since 1994 that was ubiquitous with crime investigations across the city. With major mechanical issues plaguing the almost 20-year-old vehicle (Police Chief Mark Mew said it’s been towed several times in recent years), an upgrade was due.

“It's everything we wanted,” said Detective Harry Strahle, who designed the vehicle himself.

Decked out

Getting the rig has been years in the making. The department -- Alaska's largest police force -- purchased the vehicle with a $410,000 state appropriation.

So what's in it?

• More floor space. Strahle said with extra length and additional side pull-out, there about 75-square-feet of additional space. That means a lot less squeezing past fellow officers while working a scene.

• More external lights, enough to “light up Mulcahy Stadium,” Anchorage's 3,500 seat baseball stadium, Strahle said.

• Rubber floors and medical-grade cabinets. The old vehicle had linoleum floors and lots of “soft, porous,” surfaces that were difficult to clean. Now the entire inside of the vehicle could be hosed down if needed (although Strahle added that he hopes it never gets that dirty.) Easier cleaning means fewer cross-contamination worries.

• More storage. Strahle said sometimes up to 200 pieces of evidence can be collected at a scene. A series of 6-foot-tall cabinets intended for evidence storage line the new pull-out portion of the vehicle.

• Better connectivity. Power outlets to charge laptops are everywhere. The vehicle even has its own mini-server farm on deck to stay connected to headquarters no matter where it travels.

Capt. Dave Koch said the old rig was essentially a “motorhome built to go to crime scenes.”

Creature comforts

Koch often heads the crew of five or six officers who take the vehicle to crime scenes. Officers might need to be there 18 to 40 hours -- sometimes up to a week. Creature comforts like the microwave, mini-fridge, coffee pot and incinerating toilet are part of the new vehicle. When it’s miserably cold, the rig can serve as a warm-up spot for officers.

The biggest difference might be for citizens used to seeing the old blue van at crime scenes. It’s hard to miss.  “It's not designed to be stealthy,” Mew said.

The old crime-scene vehicle may be donated to a smaller police force in the state.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com