Criminal justice students look for gems among junk

Large trash bin

Criminal investigators learn how to search for gems in piles of junk.

You can learn a lot about a person by rummaging through the rubbish.

For RU criminal justice students learning how to track down crime suspects, diving into trash bins and digging through the garbage can provide tons of useful information, even if the process is disgusting.

"All you need to find in the trash are two words, and you can go from there and get a profile of someone," said Jake Worrell, referring to a person's first and last name. Worrell was among the 39 students in Radford University Professor Tod Burke's criminal investigative theory class who presented reports after an assignment during fall semester to hunt for informational treasure in the trash. It's an exercise Burke gives his classes each semester to teach his students, many of whom aspire to be criminal investigators, how to properly search for gems among junk.

A week before the presentations, the students divided into seven groups and searched large trash bins on and off campus, finding loads upon loads of discarded materials. Among the more interesting items found by the garbage detectives were an active debit card (oops!), a seductive love note and a pizza box on which had been scribbled "I will burn this place down."

"If there is a fire on campus, we may have a suspect," Burke told the class, only partly joking.

Such finds are rare but teach a useful lesson: Information found in the garbage can be abundant for investigating officers, at least those willing to do the dirty work.

"Officers go through a lot of means to investigate people, and sometimes it's as easy as going to the curbside and finding a person's trash," Burke said. "People don't like to do it because it's messy. Well, police work is messy. This just happens to be literally messy."

But is it legal?

Yes, said Burke, who served as a police officer in Maryland before becoming an educator. "You do not need a warrant to get trash from a curb because it is discarded material."

However, there could be a dispute about whether a police officer entered a person's property when gathering curbside trash.

"So it's best to get it from a Dumpster," the professor instructed.

Once Burke's student groups had each secured a bag of trash from a bin and thoroughly examined and photographed the smelly contents to seek names attached to the belongings, many of them found social media websites useful for piecing together profiles of a person.

"We got a good bag," said Abbey Smith, a senior criminal justice major from Richmond. "We found a person's major and minor, where he was from and photos."

One of Smith's partners for the exercise, Emily Stike, added that when plugging a name into social media websites, "you can pretty much find anything you want in many cases."

In addition to learning investigative skills, Burke's students learned another valuable lesson about discarding belongings: "Make sure you shred your personal information before you toss it in the trash," said Stike, a criminal justice major from Radford.

Brennan Gravley will second that notion. His group was the one that discovered the active debit card along with store receipts containing numbers matching the bank card. The receipts were from purchases made a week before the students rummaged through the card owner's trash.

In case you're wondering: Gravley and his partners cut up the debit card and did not contact its owner. "That could have been an awkward phone conversation," said the criminal justice major from Hillsville.

The class also learned about the potential for identity theft if personal information is not properly shredded. "You could easily pull a fraud scheme from this," said Ariel Diaz, a junior from Marion majoring in criminal justice, Spanish and history. "It's really scary."

Burke noted that individuals should take the same safety precautions when discarding tangible items as they do to protect themselves on the Internet. "People put strict privacy settings on their computers and social network sites, but they often forget about the paper trail they leave behind," the professor explained.

Burke said he plans the exercise each semester to teach his students two lessons: The first is that anyone—an investigator or a would-be criminal—can gain a lot of information from a person's trash. The second lesson is always to take care of your personal information.

"Shred," he told the class. "One person's trash can be another person's gold."