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During a police academy class many years ago, an instructor stressed to the group of rookie officers the importance of paying close attention to detail. And, he told them that losing focus on matters at hand could result in overlooking evidence that’s vital to a case. Also important to note, he went on to say, was that not seeing the scene as a whole, including individual people within, such as potential suspects, could mean the difference between the officer living to see another day, or not.

This particular instructor was a firm believer in the use of visual aids, feeling that seeing is believing and that when people experience “hands-on” training they tend to remember those experiences.

Activating the senses by using “hands-on” sessions, such as fingerprinting, traffic stops, crime scene investigation, interview and interrogation, etc., definitely helps to imprint details into one’s memory.

Sure, you could attend the most fantastic lecture about blood spatter and spatter pattens, but the session, not matter how wonderful, would not equal seeing someone use a baseball bat to deliver a blow to someone’s head, an action that sends the red stuff and “matter” spurting and gushing toward a wall or other surface.

Sights, sounds, emotions, and odors associated with an experience sticks in the mind far longer than words spoken by even the best of experts.

For example, the video below from a bloodstain pattern workshop at the Writers’ Police Academy.
 


 

One day, the “hands-on” instructor was teaching about eyewitness statements and how reliable they could be, or not, when suddenly a side door opened and in came a line of a dozen people—actors from a college drama class. One held a knife in one hand, another a small handgun, and another carried a notebook. The others were empty-handed. Ten were dressed in typical everyday clothing. Two, a young man and a young woman, were dressed in swim suits. They were both fit. Extremely fit.

The actors walked straight through the front of the room, behind the instructor, and exited through a door on the opposite side of the classroom. The last person through closed the door behind him. The instructor then asked the cadets to write down a description of the people they’d just seen. The results were eye-opening.

Of the entire class only a couple could, with some degree of accuracy, describe four or five of the actors who’d walked past them. A few had a general idea of the peoples’ appearances. But most couldn’t pinpoint exact clothing types and/or hair colors or styles. Shoes? Nope. Gun? No! Knife? No!

But every single male rookie was able to describe, in detail, the woman and the swimsuit she wore. The males in the class were fairly accurate with their descriptions of the man who wore a swimsuit. The two females in the group provided extremely detailed descriptions of the swimsuited man’s arms, legs, and abdominal muscles. Freckles on his back? Check! Biceps? Triple check! They also were equally as accurate regarding the woman’s swimsuit.

The class was astonished at how poorly they’d done with the exercise. Suppose the person with gun had planned to shoot someone? There were many “what-ifs.” Yes, it was a lesson well-learned. Distraction can be a formidable enemy!

Next, during the instructor’s review of what had taken place, he began to question the class members about what they’d witnessed. While doing so he began suggesting things that they could’ve/might’ve seen. Such as one of the actors wearing a Rolex watch (neither actor wore a watch). He spoke about the actor who wore a pair of round eyeglasses (neither of the actors wore glasses of any type). And he discussed with them in detail the tattoo of a bulldog on one of the actor’s forearms. In reality, no tattoos were visible on either of the actors.

This conversation lasted for a several minutes, with the instructor “implanting” those ideas into the minds of the rookie officers. Then the instructor divided the class into smaller groups and then gave them an assignment. Each group was to write a police report that included detailed descriptions of the suspects/witnesses/actors. The results were stunning.

In the last exercise the groups offered far better descriptions of the actors. However, some included the tattoo or the Rolex watch, and/or the round eyeglasses, when in fact those items were absolutely not present.

Some of the rookies unknowingly allowed the instructor to implant the suggestions into their memories. Then, when the groups put their heads together, those who’d “seen” the tattoo, the watch, and/or the glasses, convinced enough of the others so that as a group they incorrectly presented at least one of the items as factual information that was included into their “official report.”

The first exercise was intended to raise officer awareness. They should always pay close attention to everything and everyone in their surrounding area, and as far beyond as possible. And, to not accept as absolute truth everything someone tells them. No two people see everything in the same light, and it’s awfully easy to allow a swimsuit to skew someone’s attention.

The last exercise was to show how easy it is for an officer to sway a witness or suspect’s “memory” during an interrogation. Therefore, law enforcement officers should be aware that their interviews must be based on evidence to avoid planting a false memory.

Remember, if you say something enough times, well, it becomes easy for someone to believe you.

By the way, I was the instructor who led those police academy classes. I was the instructor who led those police academy classes. I was the instructor who led those police academy classes. I was the instructor who led those police academy classes. I was the instructor who led those police academy classes. I was the instructor who led those police academy classes.

“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!