Florida forensic field working to train next generation of analysts

Posted at 11:39 AM, February 10, 2022 and last updated 7:48 PM, July 13, 2023

By Rochelle Alleyne

LAND O’LAKES, Fla. (WFTS) — To better understand how many criminal cases are solved in the bay area, WFTS-TV took a ride to Land O’Lakes.

Near the corner of Central Blvd. and Lucy Dobies Ct. is an 11-acre piece of land called the “FIRST field.” The acronym stands for Florida’s Forensic Institute for Research, Security, and Tactics (FIRST). The program is run by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and they do a lot of their training on that field.

FIRST administrator Austin Polonitza says the goal of this site is to provide a place for current forensic analysts around the state to keep their skills sharp — while also training the next generation through partnerships with schools and academic groups.


“FIRST is multidisciplinary, so not only can it be used with our donation program and our partners in academia as far as studying decomposition, but it can also be multidisciplinary as far as incorporating the K-9s into it, search and rescue or locating a hidden grave or something on the surface as well as drones,” Polonitza said.

During the visit, reporter Rochelle Allenye got to see one of those partnerships first-hand.

“By providing students with these experiences, they earn the confidence and the exposure and the experience to be able to carry on their knowledge, skills, and training to the future workforce,” said Micki Besse.

Besse is the Laboratory Coordinator of the Human Identity and Trauma Analysis Program at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU). The students she works with agree that the field experience is invaluable.

“The hands-on engagement really gives an experience that you can’t get just by reading a textbook or sitting in a lecture,” said FGCU graduate student Zachary Kurschner.

They add that some of the most valuable hands-on experience has come from working with human donors in the FIRST field.

“We follow the donor’s wishes every time and we will take that from burial to maceration which is where we break down the soft tissues and get to the bone and then we do the data collection with the actual bone itself,” said FGCU graduate student Emma Hoelscher.

To better understand the importance of these donations WFTS spoke with the Chair of the Department of Justice Studies at FGCU, Dr. Heather Walsh-Haney. She’s a forensic anthropologist, who worked on Brian Laundrie’s case and consults with 14 medical examiner districts in Florida.


“[The students and practitioners learn] everything from fingerprinting from decomposing remains to understanding how to move soil, to expose the truths underneath, to find their grave outline and then learn the best practices for removing the remains from the soil,” she said.

But Dr. Walsh-Haney said those free private donations hit a bit of a snag during the pandemic.

“So during COVID, we’ve had fewer and fewer donations that might, that is most likely tied to the federal government’s ability to help families with unexpected funerary expenses. So that might be one reason why some families have not chosen scientific or private donation, but this opportunity for families to have discussions about how they can give this ultimate gift to help students learn, help practitioner gauge their skills, help us conduct science that leads itself right into the courtroom is will hopefully be something that they choose,” she said.

It’s a choice that the Pasco County Sheriff says can help close vital cases and bring closure.

“You have to put pieces together because we ultimately realize that it’s going to go to a jury. It’s going to go to court. And when it’s in court, you have to explain, you have to get to the why. And if you can’t explain the why, you’re not going to be able to prosecute somebody that committed that crime, and you’re not going to be able to bring justice to that family,” said Sheriff Chris Nocco.

And it’s a choice that the group from FGCU said they hope to see made by people from all walks of life.

“Every step of that helps connect us further to the community so representation is really important. Everything like age, culture, region, origin, things like that help us to make forensic science better for the people that we serve,” said Hoelscher.

Sheriff Nocco also said the PCSO is expanding its training tools beyond the FIRST field to keep area law enforcement on their partners sharp in other areas.

“This is for all law enforcement. We expect that we’re going to have partners from across the country. We already do. We have federal partners that come in with MacDill right down the street. We connect very well with them and we have this type of partnership. But as I said, this is not just the Pasco Sheriff’s Office. This is for everybody to come in. We’re going to be on the cutting edge,” he said.


So far, the sheriff’s office has built a FEMA-certified rubble field and a K-9 center to help train rescuers and K-9 dogs on rescue and recovery missions after a collapse. He added they also have plans to open up a cyber-security center and hub for mental health practitioners in order to advise PCSO in real-time on certain cases.

“Everything we do, there’s technology a part of it. We have to make sure that we are prepared for those cyber issues Because that’s what’s going to overwhelm us in the future. The other side of it is behavioral health. This is where we’re going to connect behavioral health in law enforcement Because I say it’s a healthcare issue. But when people have a crisis, they call 911. So we’re the tip of the spear, and that and so it’s bringing in the medical fields in here. How do we help these people’s behavioral health? So they’re not going to the criminal justice system. They actually go into the health care system. And if we can help divert them into that system through the training here, we’re going to be much better off,” he said.

To learn more about the FIRST program, click here.

This story was originally published Feb. 8 by WFTS in Tampa Bay, an E.W. Scripps Company.