Why dead bodies used to be outlined with chalk by police? Do they still do that?

In some older movies or vintage photographs you might have seen chalk outlines marking the place of the victim in various crime scenes. This motif was integrated in many Hollywood movies, including the hilarious Naked Gun with Leslie Nielsen. But why crime scene investigators used to do that? Is chalk still being used in crime scene today?

Nowadays only children are playing with chalk outlines. Image credit: Bob Embleton via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It is not just a fantasy of Hollywood movie makers – US police actually used to outline dead bodies just before they were taken away to the coroner’s office. It was not as simple as you might think – you had to know what you’re doing. First of all, you never drew around the body too soon. At first, the crime scene (or an accident site) has to be investigated by CSI officers. All possible clues and evidence must be collected before someone steps in with a piece of chalk. You want to disturb the scene as little as possible and to take pictures of everything before you do too much. In fact, if you start drawing too early, your colleagues are going to call you a “chalk fairy”, which is not a nice nickname to have.

Outlines used to be made just before taking the body away. They were never as precise as shown in movies – they were done trying not to touch the body and skipping such details as finger placement or draping clothing. Usually, a yellow or white chalk was used, but in some cases a white tape had to substitute, because chalk was not available or simply didn’t work on a particular surface. Interestingly, although these chalk outlines were done by police officers or crime scene investigators, they were not really useful for the investigation. In fact, they were mostly done for the media.

Of course, the media was always interested in such shocking crimes as a murder. Journalists were seeking crime scene pictures to illustrate their articles or even for shock value. However, a lot of these situations were just too gruesome to be published. Furthermore, police officers didn’t want journalists to interfere with the investigation so they tried keeping them out of the crime scene in order to prevent possible contamination. In order to maintain good relations with the media and to provide information for the public, police officers would mark the outline of the body, take it away and then allow media to take some pictures to provide some visual information to go with their articles.

Nowadays it is not done anymore. With improved crime scene investigation techniques and technologies, the risk of contaminating the scene is a bit too big. Also, media is not allowed to crime scenes anymore as well. Instead, some markers (flags or little signs) are used to mark various evidences. And, of course, investigators themselves take a lot of pictures with the body in place. But movie creators are still sometimes using this interesting trope – you don’t even need actors to play dead people.


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