Written by J.L. Sumpter
Information is the answer, cooperation is the key.
Investigating Big Crimes in Small Towns
By: JL Sumpter
Officer Jones receives a call of a possible suicide. Though not a call handled every day, these types of incidents do happen and are common enough. As Officer Jones arrives on the scene, he sees the body but there is no weapon that you would expect to find with a suicide…and the body has multiple gun shot wounds.
As anxiety kicks in, he knows his 10 years working in a small town (or rural county) had not prepared him for what is about to happen. Increasingly, small and rural departments get hit with what large cities deal with several times a day. With preparation, this does not have to be a problem for officers.
Most rural police departments take on the day dealing with repetitious events with no thought of the “Big One” occurring. Unlike larger departments, many small organizations do not have the resources to handle such events. When this happens the “What do I do now?” factor surfaces. What could be an easy and straightforward process may turn into a cluster.
Although major crimes are sneaking into rural areas, the number of violent crimes remains three times higher in larger cities. Major property crimes, including organized crimes, are almost double that number. With these statistics, most have little regard for crime in rural areas, but when a murder occurs it quickly becomes a large area problem.
The first thing when handling high-impact crimes is to being mentally prepared. The second is to resort to the already created checklists and policies since this helps put officers on the same page. However, be aware that checklists can vary from one crime to another as the ordinary may quickly become complex.
In rural areas, the number of officers can be minimal, which forces a request for assistance from area agencies. With this in mind, it is vital when help arrives they are just as prepared as your agency. Upon arrival and after the assisting agency is aware of your procedure, step back and welcome suggestions.
Not checking egos at the door can have a substantial negative impact on the investigation. This is not a time to be a hero; rather, it is about successfully and safely closing a case. Though being the agency to sign the arrest warrant is satisfying, it should be done, so all agencies as a group are recognized for putting the violent offender or offenders behind bars.
The Rushing Stops
When high-priority crimes hit, investigators tend to think big. Like trials of today where the majority of time prosecutors are explaining the realism of CSI. Unfortunately, investigators may find themselves thinking the same thing. Keep in mind, “If you hear hoof prints it is probably horses and not giraffes.”
Other than an active shooter or other similar incident, an investigator should slow down and reason with a clear mind while also calming the rest of the team. Slowing down means not jumping to immediate conclusions and having the case solved before analyzing the collected evidence. For example, at the scene of a murder victim, immediately stating the suspect dumped the body in that location would be premature unless there is a sign over the body stating otherwise.
Just as outdated evidence can create doubt for the jury (e.g. gun shot residue), a belief expressed early in the investigation may have the same effect. This information gives the defense attorney ammunition when cross-examining an officer on the stand. Why early in the investigation did you believe this was a dump job and now you do not? What changed your mind? Why could it not be...?
Minds of the Many
Utilizing training or experience from area agencies and officers is a must when a high-impact offense, such as murder, occurs once in 20 years. The investigating officer should seek assistance from someone who has handled a similar case. A detective in rural areas may go their entire career without handling a homicide, armed robbery, or other such crime, so it is vital he understands that it is OK to ask for more experience.
Since most, if any, smaller departments have a crime lab, it is necessary to utilize these units. In Michigan, most departments utilize the Michigan State Police Crime Lab for evidence preservation or analysis. Although they have individual units specific to crime scene evidence collection, it is crucial to have as many officers trained in evidence collection and other investigative needs.
Once an officer receives technician status, keeping up to date on current trends is a non-negotiable. While being careful not to step on toes, a younger, newly trained investigator should carefully announce up-to-date procedures, so everyone is on board (e.g. from the top down).
There are usually one or two investigators in each department, and when put together, can make a pretty good team. In addition to updating individual departments, it is also ideal for investigators to meet monthly to discuss area concerns, up-to-date resources, and investigation techniques. These meetings should involve representatives from all law enforcement related agencies holding potential information.
Keep in mind we are talking about small areas where wealth of information does not exist under one roof, rather contained under many different walls. For example, members from probation and parole could obtain information way beyond the capabilities of a local detective. Be on a first-name basis with these individuals and make sure the flow of information is a two-way street.
As a lead investigator, he will be bombarded with ideas and theories from other team members. Take heed in this as theories from others can suggest a new light into the investigation. Being the CEO of this team does not make him the man with all the answers especially in an area where these types of crimes do not happen every day. After creating a unit and collecting the evidence, follow-up meetings should immediately begin. This puts all on the same page and opens doors to new information.
Meetings concerning a high-impact crime can be broken down into three areas. The first meeting strictly involves the officers directly participating in the investigation. Questions dealing with leads and evidence, and developing a plan, is the priority. The second meeting could involve a round table-type discussion with key witnesses or family members. The traditional one-on-one interview with key witnesses is obviously part of an officer’s arsenal, but sometimes opening it up can set many at ease.
Everyone knows everyone in a small town, so the amount of information from one person can have a significant impact. The third meeting should be with prosecutors. Like rural police departments, prosecutors may not have handled these types of cases as well, so it is mandatory they are kept in the loop and up to date with the investigation.
Information is Key
Use the Internet. Many websites have popped up touting their ability to find information that LEIN or other computer-based programs are unable to do. For instance, TLO Online Investigative Services is a system designed to provide more than present information, but give officers the history of various aspects of the suspect’s or victim’s lives.
Services such as TLO give detectives what many think is private information. While this information is essential, it provides an extremely high shock factor when the officer interjects information the suspect thinks is private. During the “building rapport” stage, the officer should provide information that only the suspect thinks they know. Such as, “I see you lived at 124 State Street when you were a child. What would your neighbor, Steve Smith, say about you?”
When a detective provides pertinent information, it gives the impression that she has done the homework needed to piece the case together. This can be an intimidating factor for the suspect, which at times assists in breaking down walls. This type of information is excellent for developing suspects but just as valuable in creating a thorough victimology. A victimology is extremely beneficial and sometimes an often missed step in the process. What brought the victim to his final resting place?
There are many factors that go into a rural-area “high-priority” investigation. Though easier said than done, the key at the beginning is for the lead investigator to remain calm. As other officers go through this process, the calming effect of the leader sets the tone for the others. Once the rushing has stopped, the work begins.
A prepared department is one that has checklists in place and officers trained. Though a high-impact crime may never occur in an officer’s career, it is essential officers are ready to go if the time comes. Part of preparation is to know what outside resource could be utilized for assistance. Information is a key ingredient to a successful investigation. It can come from many resources outside the scope of the people involved. Proper victimology is essential, which assists in providing investigators information outside the scene.
A murder or other high-priority crime against a person does not have to be a cluster. A department properly prepared does wonders when these crimes occur. Though economically it may seem a waste to put money into training that may never be used, it is assured that when the time comes, the money will be well spent.
JL Sumpter, M.S. is currently a Detective/Sergeant with the Emmet County Sheriff’s Office in Michigan and has over 17 years of experience. JL is a freelance writer and public speaker in the law enforcement field. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.