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You’re working patrol on the west side, the crime hub of your area, with thirty minutes to go on your last graveyard shift of the month. And, as your typical run of bad luck would have it, the only type of luck you’ve ever known, you catch the call. Homicide. Male victim. Multiple gunshot wounds.

Your department’s small, with no crime scene unit and only two detectives. The senior detective is out sick. Doctors say she has a severe case of the Crawling Creepy-Cruds and won’t be able to return to work for several days. Her partner is away attending a weeklong cordite festival, a historical reenactment event where enthusiastic attendees dress up as characters who made the stuff (cordite) back at the end of WWII.

And, to top off this bout of wonderful misfortune, your sergeant is away teaching workshops at the Writers’ Police Academy, a fantastic hands-on training event for writers, readers, fans, journalists, and anyone else who has an interest in seeing how crimes are solved in the real world.

So tag, you’re it! You are the grand prize winner of an entire murder investigation.

Do you even remember the basics? After all, with the exception of the occasional strong-arm robbery and nabbing a few peeping Toms, you’ve mostly done nothing for the past six years but write traffic tickets and respond to B&Es and he-said-she-said calls.

What do you do first?

Well …

  • Call for backup/assistance. If needed, the sheriff’s office and/or state police would probably send someone over to help. Besides, the killer may be waiting at the scene to ambush a cop. Don’t be a hero!
  • Avoid tunnel vision while on the way to the scene. Sometimes the bad guy can be found walking or running away, or hanging around to see the police lights and subsequent activity.

  • Secure the scene. Set up some sort of perimeter. The sheriff’s deputy could help with this duty. If your department is really small, other first-responders, such as firefighters and EMS, could help with stretching and hanging crime scene tape. Otherwise, have fellow officers seal the area to prevent anyone from entering and exiting.
  • Record the names and contact information of everyone in the area.
  • Separate the witnesses.

  • Render first aid, if necessary. Call for EMS and the medical examiner.
  • Survey the scene. Develop a mental picture of what happened.
  • Examine the area for tracks. There may be an identifiable mark, brand, or logo. You may be surprised to see one of the nosy looky-loos wearing that very shoe.
  • If possible, collect or protect items of evidence before the medical examiner’s team and/or EMS enters the scene. Remember, writers, in some rural areas a medical examiner, or coroner, may not visit the scene, opting for EMS to transport the body to the morgue for examination/autopsy.

Trust me, EMS is not kind to evidence. Their priority is to save or revive the victim. Therefore, when the scene is a hot one, where there’s a possibility that they could save a life, they’ll trample, stomp, drag, kick, and move whatever’s in their path.

The aftermath of EMS and fire personnel sometimes has the appearance of the destruction left behind by a small tornado. Stuff—gauze, paper wrappings, IV lines, dropped or discarded bandages, shoe and bootprints—is everywhere and, well, when they’re gone detectives look around and wonder … WTF just happened to my crime scene!

  • Make notes of everything, including the date, time, weather conditions, etc.
  • Document statements made by the M.E.. Record the M.E.’s time of arrival and the time the body is removed. Notes. Notes. And more notes.
  • Chain of custody has begun. Document all evidence collected and who took possession of it, including the body. Was the body bag sealed? Did the medical examiner transport the body to the morgue, or was it transported by the ambulance service?
  • Photograph everything. I mean E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have one handy, use a laser scanner to record details of the crime scene

  • Question as many witnesses as possible before calling it a night. It’s best to get statements before they’ve had  chance to talk to anyone, or perhaps get cold feet and not want to get involved. Besides, people tend to forget things in a hurry. They also tend to exaggerate or embellish a story if given the time to do so.
  • Be sure the notes you jot down are things you won’t mind having read aloud in court. Defense attorneys may ask to see your notes, and it would be embarrassing to hear your grocery list, or the beginnings of a mushy poem dedicated to your beloved schnauzer, read aloud to the jury.
  • Develop and use a written crime scene checklist. By doing so your testimony will be consistent in each and every case.
  • Be careful not to contaminate or transfer DNA evidence. Even fingerprint brushes can transfer DNA, so you should use a fresh brush for each crime scene. It would certainly ruin your credibility to have the DNA from the victim in your last case show up in the current one. Fingerprint powder can also become contaminated by dusting a surface and then dipping the brush back into the container for more powder.
  • Collect everything that could be used as evidence. Who knows what you may need later. Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago when scientists began using DNA found in evidence from old cases.
  • The last item on the mental checklist … use common sense.

* This list is not an official, standard checklist. Nor are the steps listed in a particular order. A formal, universal list does not exist. Each agency has its own policy, and each investigator has his/her own method of solving crimes.

“To Protect and Preserve.” Those are the words that should be on the mind of every officer who responds to the scene of a homicide.

First responders have an immense responsibility. Not only do they have to assess the situation in a hurry—the victim may still be alive—-, the possibility of the killer still being on scene is quite probable. And, those officers must realize that the key to solving the case—evidence—must be protected. So, while facing the threat of personal harm and saving the life of others, patrol officers practically need to step through the scene as if walking on eggshells. That’s not asking too much of them, right?

Keep in mind, there’s no set-in-stone method of investigating a murder because no two scenes are identical. And, no two officers/crime scene investigators think exactly alike. However, there are certain things that must be done, and there are mistakes that must not me made. Here are a few pointers.

The Dos

1. First responders must proceed to the scene as quickly and safely as possible. Why? Possibly catch the bad guy and to prevent the destruction/removal of evidence.

2. Quickly start the crime-solving wheels in motion by contacting the necessary parties, such as investigators, coroner, EMS, etc.

3. Arrest the suspect, if possible.

4. Document EVERYTHING.

5. Preserve and collect evidence.

6. Assume that EVERYTHING is potential evidence.

7. Secure the scene. Absolutely no one is allowed to enter who’s not a key person in the investigation.

8. Treat every single suspicious death as a homicide until the investigation proves otherwise.

9. Keep an open mind.

10. Photograph, photograph, photograph!

11. Study the victim. Learn everything there is to know about them. Know them. Know what they ate, what they liked to do, where they liked to go, who they liked and disliked, who liked them and who hated them, etc. Uncover every single detail of their life. The victim is often the single most important piece of evidence in the case.

12. Share information with members of your investigative team. Bounce thoughts and ideas around among the group. Talk to everyone involved—patrol officers on the scene, the coroner, other investigators, the crime scene techs, etc.

The Don’ts

1. Do not assume anything. Sure, the call came in as a suicide, but that doesn’t mean that’s what actually happened. That’s merely what a witness told the dispatcher. And definitely do not assume there are no weapons present at the scene simply because that’s what your dispatcher told you. Again, he/she was given that information by someone at the scene who may not know.

2. Do not assume the suspect has left the scene. Treat everyone there as a possible murderer until you learn differently. Be smart and be safe.

3. Do not allow anyone to leave the area until you’ve interviewed them. Treat everyone as a possible witness. Sometimes people don’t realize they’ve seen an important detail.

4. Failing to secure a scene could wind up as a disaster. Family members have a tendency to get in the way, thus destroying vital evidence. They feel the need to be a part of the scene. They want answers. Some are combative and want to blame and fight others. Therefore, absolutely do not allow anyone inside the scene. This includes members of the police department if they’re not part of the investigation. And I mean everyone, including the mayor, the chief, the sheriff, etc. (The last one’s easier said than done, right deputies?). If the boss insists then have them sign the log before stepping beyond the perimeter boundary line.

5. Releasing information to the media. Hold your cards close to your chest until you have an idea of what information can be released to the public. Remember, what you say will be on the evening news!

6. Don’t get a case of tunnelvision. Keep your mind open to everything, at first. Then as the case starts to come together the focus of the investigation will narrow. A murder investigation works like a funnel. First you dump all you’ve found into the large end. Then you keep pushing and pushing until finally the killer’s name pops out of the other, smaller end.

7. Failing to take enough notes and photographs could later haunt you in ways one can only imagine. You only have one shot at this, so take more notes than you think you could possibly need while the scene is still intact. There are no do-overs.

8. Don’t take sloppy notes and keep sloppy records. Remember, what you write down and/or record could/will eventually be seen in court. Your records will be a reflection of how the investigation was conducted. Clean notes = a clean, tight investigation.

9. Don’t discuss a case where members of the general public have an opportunity to hear the conversation! Words are too easy to misunderstand and that can come back to bite a detective in the…well, a place where the sun doesn’t shine. Think about a trial witness who says to the judge and jury, “Yes, I heard the detective say …”

10. Again, a case is not a suicide until the investigation proves it is. How many murderers have “gotten away with it” due to lazy officers conducting slipshod investigations? Sure, it’s easy to take a peek at a victim and assume suicide. But every case should warrant a closer look. You never know, especially if the circumstances are suspicious. And never discount that detective’s “gut feeling,” the investigator’s 6th sense.

11. Do not rush into a crime scene without first taking everything in. Take a moment to assess the area. Are there any dangers, including hidden ones, such as gas leaks, poisonous chemicals, A KILLER WITH A GUN?

12. Don’t assume the victim is dead. Check for vital signs. You certainly don’t want him to lie there suffering while you stand around waiting for the coroner. A few seconds could be the difference between life and death.

13. Don’t assume that the cooperative witness with the happy face is innocent. He could very well be the killer. If so, arrest that clown!

 

Homicide investigations are the crème de la crème of all investigations.

To solve a murder investigators use all available resources. No-holds barred. No sparing of the horses. No waiting for the obese lady to start her song. Sometimes it’s a race to catch the killer before he strikes again. But detectives must still use caution and care when evaluating and examining all evidence, including the crime scene.

To maintain order, and to prevent disaster in court, detectives and other crime-scene investigators follow a mental checklist of things to do at a murder scene. Some use an actual written guideline. The list is actually a series of common sense questions that need to be answered before moving to the next stage of the investigation.

Crime Scene Dos and Don’ts – Click here.

Investigators should always determine what, if anything, has changed since the first responders arrived. Did the officers turn lights on or off? Did they move the body to check for signs of life? Did anyone else enter or leave the scene?

Crime Scenes … Watch Your Step!

Did the patrol guys open or close windows and doors? Did they walk through blood or other body fluids?

Crime-scene searches must be methodical and quite thorough. Every single surface, nook, and cranny must be examined for evidence, including ceilings, walls, doors, light switches, thermostats, door knobs, etc. Not only are they searching for clues and evidence, they’re looking for things that aren’t there, such as a missing knife, jewelry, or even the family car. Did the suspect take anything that could be traced back to the victim? Where would the killer take the items? To a pawn shop? Home? Toss them in a nearby dumpster?

Investigators must determine if the body has been moved by the suspect. Are there drag marks? Smeared body fluids? Transfer prints? Is there any blood in other areas of the scene? Is fixed lividity on the wrong side of the body, indicating that it had been moved after death

Does the victim exhibit signs of a struggle? Are there defensive wounds present on the palms of the hands and forearms?

Is there significant blood spatter? Is there high-velocity spatter? Did flies cause false spatter?

What is the point of impact? Where was the shooter standing when he delivered the fatal blow, or shot

False spatter – “Hey, it’s what I do,” said the fly.

Once the detective is satisfied that all the checklist questions have been answered she can then move on to the next phase of the murder investigation, collecting physical evidence.