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SIO Corner: Scene Cordons

This week we look at the use of cordons and in particular inner and outer cordons

In this series we look at various aspects of life as an SIO. This includes the necessary skill sets for the successful SIO, the management of serious crime investigation and specific elements of investigative practice from initial response through crime scene examination and investigative strategies to dealing with suspects and the media. The articles are excerpts from the 2nd edition of Blackstone's, the 'Senior Investigating Officers' Handbook', written by two highly experienced SIOs (see 'About the Authors' at the end of the article).

Use of scene cordons

Security cordons are vitally important, not only for guarding the scene but also protecting the public, controlling sightseers and the media, preventing unauthorized interference and access (eg by suspects), facilitating the emergency services response, and for preserving evidence and avoiding contamination. An initial response should always involve arranging scene security by putting as quickly as possible effective cordons in place. This can become challenging, particularly if there is a large area to cordon which is outdoors. At a later stage it may have to be proved to the satisfaction of a court that there was no possibility of any interference with or contamination of the crime scene, particularly by the offender if trace evidence links them to the scene.

Cordons can be very resource intensive to maintain their integrity and the SIO will depend heavily on uniform police colleagues to ensure there are sufficient resources made available to make them effective. They become a highly ‘visible’ part of the investigation and what the public sees if they are at the scene or watching on television news reports. Apart from an essential security and scene sterility function they influence community confidence on how the enquiry is being managed and must look and be extremely professional.

KEY POINTS – Visibility and professionalism

  1. Officers tasked with scene security duties should be clearly visible to the public. Cordon control officers are on display and indicative of the level of police professionalism. Shoddy standards from officers looking bored or undisciplined (eg sat in a police vehicle reading a newspaper) send out bad messages and affect public trust and confidence.
  2. While on cordon duties officers should be encouraged to talk to anyone around and passers-by who may have vital information to offer which can be fed into the incident room. They must be warned, however, about not giving out details of the investigation without prior permission of the SIO, eg to media reporters or members of a victim’s family.
  3. Scene preservation and security officers must be properly briefed. A daily briefing sheet could be handed to them, explaining why the scene is being preserved in a form that could be communicated to members of the public. This could include a list of key questions to ask and will enhance their role as members of the enquiry team.

Indoor scenes are usually comparatively easier to secure by the closing of doors and restricting entry into premises, initially by the presence of officers at entrance and exit points. This is because they are self-contained. However, with outdoor scenes there can be additional considerations and complications such as weather, crowds, traffic, security, media intrusion, elevated observation points nearby, etc. In such cases cordons should be made as wide as possible and can always be reduced later. Restricting access to
outdoor scenes can be achieved by the use of metal barriers or cordon tape, vehicles to block entrances, officers or PCSOs positioned around the perimeter and entry/exit points, dog handlers, mounted branch (if large rural area for instance) to ensure boundary lines cannot be crossed. Natural boundaries such as hedges and fences can also form part of a cordon, bearing in mind the potential for offenders to have discarded items such as weapons, blood stained clothing, mobile phones, or stolen items over such boundaries. Road blocks may also be necessary dependent on the location. Scene cordons must be adequately guarded along their entire perimeter to ensure there is no unauthorized access.

It is good practice to assign ownership for managing scene cordons to a supervisor in a designated ‘bronze commander’ role, ie as dedicated Cordon Manager. Their task is to ensure adequate resources and arrangements are in place to safeguard the integrity of and eliminate unauthorized access to the crime scene, which includes briefing and continuously supervising all those on cordon security duties. It also includes ensuring that scene logs are completed correctly.


An SIO should be intrusive by challenging the effectiveness of cordon management and scene security. This can be simply by questioning cordon officers about the duties they have been tasked to perform, who is in charge of them, and checking the content, accuracy, and quality of their scene logs.

Making use of inner and outer cordons

There are usually two types of cordons—inner and outer. In some instances it may be necessary to set up an additional outer cordon, ie a third cordon. This would be a wider cordon covering both the inner and outer cordons. This might occur when there is more than one significant scene within close proximity. An example occurred in Operation Sumac which was a linked series of five homicides in December 2006 near Ipswich in Suffolk. Two of the victims bodies (Annette Nicholls and Paula Clennel) were located very close together adjacent to a busy country road.

At these scenes, inner and and outer cordons were created with an additional outer cordon to keep the media and public out of the perimeter. (See (2008) 4(2) Journal of Homicide and Major Incident Investigation (NPIA), 94–7.)

Note: The terms ‘hot zone’, ‘warm zone’, and ‘cold zone’ may sometimes be used to manage a scene which involves contamination of any sort, and essentially the zones relate to cordoned areas.

Inner cordon

The inner cordon is a designated area that is closest to where the main examination will take place. This may be where a body lies or the main attack site. The inner cordon usually has quite small parameters and provides a boundary for detailed forensic examinations to be conducted. It must be very tightly controlled. This is where the SIO may wish to consider the use of a large tent or other similar screening equipment in order to safeguard the privacy of the scene, in particular away from distressed on-lookers or long-range media cameras or observation equipment.

Outer cordon

The outer cordon allows for a larger area to be contained and covers the peripheral parts of the inner scene. This provides a secure area not only for examination but also preparatory work to be undertaken and the adequate distancing of members of the public and media. This area may also be subject to forensic examination but is unlikely to be as detailed as the inner cordon.

Each cordon must have adequate ‘access control’ to ensure only authorized people can gain access. The SIO must set adequate policies and give instructions to cordon officers as to who is to be allowed in, which may differ between inner and outer cordons. The SIO will make this decision probably in consultation with the CSM, and there may well be separate and distinct policies for both. For this reason both cordons will require a separate log to be completed (scene logs are covered later).

Case study—Proving security of a crime scene

A victim had been beaten, raped, and strangled at an outdoor semirural location adjoining parkland. The outer cordon required wide boundaries and parameters because of the large number of potential entry and exit routes to/from where the attack took place. Unauthorized access was prevented by use of uniform staff, dog handlers, and the mounted branch. An offender was later found to have trace evidence on his clothing linking him to the primary scene.

At the subsequent trial his defence team claimed he had visited the scene post-murder out of curiosity as he lived close by. The police inspector responsible for scene security (bronze commander) was intensively cross-examined regarding security arrangements.

All scene logs were heavily scrutinized, together with briefing notes and hand-over arrangements, proving the offender could not have entered the crime scene. The efficient and professional handling of the scene security withstood inquisitorial attacks and the offender’s defence was rejected by the jury, who found him guilty.

Next week we will look at Rendezvous Points (RVP) and Common Approach paths (CAP)

About the Authors:

Detective Superintendent Tony Cook was a CID officer with Greater Manchester Police for over 31 years until his retirement in 2009. During his time as an SIO, he led a number of high profile investigations including operations into gangland violence at Moss Side, the Bolton murder of a teenage girl in 2002, and the Denton strangling case. He was a trained assessor for promotion and a qualified Authorising Officer under RIPA. Tony received 14 commendations and a first-class BSc Honours degree in social sciences and a Diploma in Social Policy & Criminology from the Open University.

Andy Tattersall, formerly Detective Superintendent in Greater Manchester Police on the Force Major Incident Team, retired in 2007 after 33 years service and became the first ever Support Staff SIO in charge of a new Homicide Support Unit. With over 29 years in CID at all ranks Andy received the Homicide Working Group National Award for his Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Homicide in November 2006.

To see more details about the Senior Investigating Officers' Handbook, or to purchase a copy, click here.

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