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Homicide Unit…and its Commander
Written by Vernon Geberth
Not everyone has the temperament, personality, perseverance or skills to be an effective homicide unit member—or squad commander. The supervision and management of a specialized investigative unit requires a drastically different approach than the strict patrol-oriented paramilitary model. The traditional model does not allow for much input from the subordinates or for variations at the point of execution. The supervision of mature men and women, who have years of practical investigative experience, requires a specific type of command leadership that recognizes the professional expertise and value of the members as well as the administrative need for the efficient management and coordination of the members’ activities.
The supervision and management function requires the supervisor to actively participate in the investigation. This does not mean “playing detective” and/or jumping into the operational aspects, such as interrogation of suspects, searching the crime scene, collecting and/or handling evidence, interviewing prospective witnesses, etc.
Active participation means sharing an interest in the investigation, intelligently directing activities, and utilizing the investigative critiques to establish priorities properly. In addition, active participation enables the supervisor to assess the case and provide the necessary resources to the members of the squad so they may effectively investigate the case.
The supervisor of homicide should ideally have a homicide or investigative background as experience is a prime asset to appreciate and understand the dynamics of the investigative function. This does not mean a supervisor who lacks a homicide or investigative background cannot effectively supervise investigations. However, it does suggest there is a need for learning the investigative processes involved. Even for the experienced supervisor, managing investigations is an ongoing educational process.
Homicide investigation requires specialized skills and training. Detectives should be able to absorb the many details that emerge in a murder investigation, be well-read, knowledgeable of current events and open-minded. Homicide investigators should learn to look at each case as a form of continuing education. As they become involved in additional investigations, they will be able to build a base of experience, allowing them to make a determination of whether or not something is consistent or inconsistent. They must be alert to new developments within the profession and be able to apply this to their current cases.
In addition to proficiently operating special pieces of equipment, the detectives are required to learn effective interview and interrogation techniques, crime scene processing, evidence handling, report writing, documentation as well as the most effective and proper court presentation of findings.
Practically speaking, it takes at least one year for an officer to become somewhat familiar with investigation procedures as well as the investigative forms and the paperwork required for both the departments and the criminal justice system. It takes approximately two years before the officer effectively contributes to the operation. Time and experience are the best resources for the continuing education necessary in developing a proficient investigator.
The investigation begins with a careful and intelligent examination of the crime scene and the suspect. This means you don’t contaminate your own crime scene and you have the intelligence to realize the suspect is an extension of the scene. The detective must also recognize that anything and everything may constitute a piece of evidence. The detective evaluates these “bits and pieces” of evidence coupled with the preliminary information provided by the reporting witness and/or others looking for elements of consistency.
These bits and pieces may be in the form of trace evidence found at the scene, statements taken from suspects, direct eyewitness accounts, or autopsy results. There may be an eyewitness from whom you must glean a detailed and thorough account before his memory fades or is influenced by what is going on around him. This includes police activity and other potential witnesses talking to one another.
Interview and Interrogation
If you have a suspect in custody, you will have to conduct an intelligent interrogation of the suspect, which requires that Miranda Rights be provided to this suspect so the information you obtain will have probative value. This is best undertaken at the station house where you will have the necessary facilities to conduct this crucial phase of the investigation. If the suspect is cooperative, have the detectives take a preliminary statement at the scene, which can be used to assist the authorities in the recovery of evidence.
The commander should assure that absolutely no one interfere or interrupt this process. In fact, most professional officers know you never interrupt an interrogation unless there’s an emergency. The supervisor and/or commander should make sure the interview and interrogation aspect is conducted to its ultimate conclusion. Inappropriate command interference in this phase of the investigation is usually done by inexperienced supervisors or micro managers who think they can do a better job.
The Reality of the Interrogation
Many times you have to elicit from the suspect an account of what actually took place and then compare this information to the facts you have developed and discovered during the initial inquiry. As long as you can get the suspect to talk, you are ahead of the game. It doesn’t matter if he lies or “plays games.” If you listen carefully, you may be fortunate enough to glean some piece of evidence you would have missed. Remember, the next best thing to a confession is a provable lie.
An offender may attempt to minimize his responsibility by blaming the victim. Or, the offender may suggest the victim encouraged the behavior. Or the offender may state that the victim was a willing participant in the event. The offender will then construct an elaborate alibi or story that has “kernels of truth” interspersed into his account of the event. These “kernels of truth” seemingly explain some components of the event and some of the evidence the authorities have uncovered.
However, when placed in context, the statement doesn’t ring true in its entirety. To maintain the dialogue, the investigator should allow the suspect’s subterfuge to gain some admissions that can be focused on in subsequent interrogations.
The Reality of Investigative Expertise
Homicide detectives experience a whole different aspect of law enforcement as they gain access to agencies and operations outside the purview of their own police departments. They learn to interact with both the private and public sectors and become acquainted with different personalities and various non-police scenarios in their endeavor to obtain information critical to the case.
Needless to say, detectives always access information as soon as possible from multiple sources both within and outside the department. Many times they have to learn to “Think Outside the Box” in order to get the job done. Remember, information is the lifeblood of an investigation. This is where the police manager with the wrong personality gets stressed.
Many major case investigations are successfully completed by a combination of brainstorming, intuition and educated guesswork. The expertise developed by detectives is based on extensive experience in the field and a familiarity with a large number of cases. Experienced detectives, who have recognized a particular modus operandi from a case in the past or a perpetrator’s distinctive signature, have solved innumerable cases.
It’s this experience coupled with knowledge and continuity within the detective division, that assures successful investigations and that crimes will be solved. And, consequently instills the confidence of the community in their police.
For personnel to attain this level of expertise they must have years of practical experience coupled with formal education, training schools and seminars. It is a very fine blend of “Practice and Theory” that enables investigators to function as professionals, and the professional homicide detective must be willing to work as a team player who engenders cooperation by his own conduct and behavior.
The Homicide Squad Commander
A Homicide Squad is only as good as its unit commander in attaining success. The commanding officer must be able to instill in his troops a sense of esprit de corps and encourage interest and enthusiasm in the unit. At the same time, the commander must assure that proper and appropriate discipline and deportment in the unit is maintained.
When Homicide Squad Commanders have been afforded the duty of running their command and know they have the freedom to assign, discipline, transfer and select their personnel as needed, they will be more effective and will gladly and fully accept every responsibility both for themselves and their troops. Accepting responsibility for their actions and what the squad members do in accordance with their duties builds confidence and solidifies leadership. More importantly, your troops know they can rely on you to support them.
In addition to everything else, the Squad Commander acts as a buffer between headquarters and the command. Everything should flow through the commanding officers, who in turn report back to their commanders.
Sources of Power
John Bizzack wrote the excellent book No Nonsense Leadership. One of the chapters, “Issues of Power” described the difference between supervisors who perform with Power Source 1 and Power Source 2. As a commander, you have sources of power to command. Power Source 1, which is granted to you by the nature of your position, comes to you as soon as you are promoted. It is legal and legitimate because it is delegated to you by the organization for which you work.
This power source has tremendous strength, but leaders who rely solely on this source tend to start thinking they are more important than they really are, which results in the narrowly focused thinking of the autocrat. This is the type of person who can’t be wrong and looks to blame others. This is also the type of commander who calls an air strike on his own command rather than face the consequence of his actions.
The Homicide Commander, who develops his power source from the people he leads, will always prevail over the autocrat. This is called Power Source 2. You earn this power by proving you are consistent. Law enforcement people like consistency. They want to know their boss will back them up as they go about their business.
Commanders exhibit confidence by clearly showing they know what they are doing, how they are doing it, why they are doing it, and what other people are doing about it. This is the type of commander who without missing a beat, can demonstrate social compassion in an employee work-related issue as well as “tighten up” a problem employee without destroying morale.
Commanders must avoid becoming autocrats or domineering bosses, who live by the motto, “Do as I say not as I do.” Commanders must also resist the inclination to unnecessarily interfere in an investigation or engage in micro-management, which frustrates initiative and responsibility.
By the same token, Squad Commanders cannot allow themselves to become buddy-buddy with everyone because they will have effectively relinquished their command ability. Commanders must treat everyone the same (at least as far as can be seen). Don’t play favorites, and be ready to explain “why” something was done or not done that affects the troops. Homicide Commanders must mentally discipline themselves to be leaders who are strong, self-reliant and socially responsible.
Some commanders are naturals at building a disciplined and enthusiastic team and it is evident to everyone in the department. If you are newly assigned to supervise detectives, or you are a new commander, this is the person you want to emulate. Commanders who are naturals usually operate with both power source 1 and 2 and will be more than willing to act as mentors.
These are the commanders who encourage initiative in their subordinates. Many times during a “brainstorming” session, one of the detectives may suggest a tactic or ploy that is impractical. Don’t criticize or minimize the suggestion, especially in front of the other members. Explain why and provide the rationale behind your decision of why it won’t work. If the tactic is innovative and workable, make sure the individual who suggested it is recognized for his contribution. Remember, always be fair and truthful with your subordinates.
Be a stand-up commander and fight for your people in the squad regardless of the issue involved. Your squad members will recognize you are behind them and will provide you with their loyalty. Likewise, when you make a mistake or are wrong, admit it. Don’t hide behind your rank. Soon you will have a cohesive unit and a team not afraid to jump into an investigation and suggest a course of action.
Surround yourself with the detectives and supervisors whom you consider the best. Good people who will make you look good. They are seasoned detectives with good solid investigatory skills who know exactly what they have to do to solve a case. For the most part, investigators are self-motivated to get the job done. Provide your people with the necessary resources and support so they can accomplish the mission.
The management and supervision of a homicide squad or investigative division is unique in its comparison to other police management operations. The management of day-to-day patrol operations and administrative functions can be proceduralized because of their routine and repetitive nature. In fact, management and supervision of many police operations are interchangeable and allow for supervisory reassignment and career growth within the organization.
Investigatively speaking, the intelligent management and supervision of homicide investigations requires a different approach that takes into account the unpredictable aspects of a murder investigation. There are rules, procedures, and established policies that give direction and coordination to the function, as well as guidelines implemented for specific investigative actions.
However, in homicide investigation, the on-scene commander directs and coordinates a team effort based on established policies. As a commander, he is given the authority to allow for variations of the guidelines to occur when needed at the point of execution. This flexibility is based on necessity and common sense.
Note: These copyrighted materials have been excepted with the author’s permission.
Vernon Geberth, M.S., M.P.S., is the author of Practical Homicide Investigations: Tactics, Procedures and Forensic Techniques. He retired from the NYPD as a lieutenant commander. He can be reached at www.practicalhomicide.com.
Published in Law and Order, Nov 2011
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