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Top 10 ways to botch an investigation
Here's a list — probably too glib for some — for you to keep in mind when you’re at the scene
Note: This article was updated on May 4, 2016.
I spent almost half of my career in Investigations. Three tours, one even as the Commander of the Investigations Division of our County Homicide Task Force, and what I don’t know about investigations could fill a football stadium. What I was good at was being incredibly lucky, and surrounding myself with a gifted team.
Given this, when I sat down to write a list of what not to do in an investigation, my first thought was to avoid getting too many bosses like me involved and let the guys who know what they are doing do the job. All kidding aside, it's important to know that if you screw up one investigation, it can affect your subsequent investigations for years to come. Here's an abbreviated list — probably too glib for some — for you to keep in mind when you’re at the scene of an investigation.
1. Don’t cover up the body with a blanket — I’ve seen cops do this, but to be fair it’s usually the fire department and no matter how many times you try to explain to them that they are transferring material, contaminants, and other evidence from one part of the crime scene to another, they just don’t seem to get it. “Preserving the integrity of the dead person” is most important to them. And no matter how many times you explain, “He’s dead!” some people have a hard time grasping that concept.
2. Don’t unload or secure guns in an already secure crime scene — I actually saw a patrolman pick up two guns after a guy had been shot, unload them, handcuff them together, and put them on top of the refrigerator before detectives and evidence techs arrived. And it was a condo with no one present but a couple of uniform cops. When I arrived, I asked him if he read Miranda to the .38 and 9 mm.
3. Don’t let every cop working come in and look at the body — One of the first shootings I was involved in was actually in a neighboring town and I was just a back-up. But what I noticed, even as a rookie, was how every cop working walked into the crime scene in order to see the gore. But to do this they had to step on pills, kick away bullet casings and literally pick up the deceased so they could see the entrance wound in the back of his head.
4. Don’t forget to keep a log of everyone who walks into the scene — That includes bosses, Chiefs, Mayors, Alderman, Prosecutors, the Chief’s mother, the Mayor’s neighbor, and nosey cops. Let them know you are logging their entry. Better yet, don’t let them in. Even uninvolved Commanders; let em’ know they need to stay out.
5. Don’t be afraid to take charge — Someone has to. I don’t care if you are a rookie, if you are the first one there, TAKE COMMAND! Of course relinquish it when someone else shows up who outranks you. But believe me; controlling the scene will be greatly appreciated by those who need to investigate and are concerned about scene integrity (see O.J. Simpson case).
6. Don’t forget to take pictures — Take em’ early. Take em’ often. You never have too many. Start snapping pictures as soon as it is tactically safe to do so. Remember to use anything you can for scale or to establish positioning.
7. Don’t take stupid pictures — A cop pretending they are tonguing the dead guy’s ear doesn’t look good in court. Putting funny hats on the victim or placing cigarettes in the mouth is also a bad idea. All of these, by the way, I have seen in my career, though they were a very, very long time ago. Taking 50 pictures of a dildo found in the closet are not only unnecessary they are discoverable and tough to explain to three grandmothers sitting on the jury. Simply put: stay professional.
8. Don’t read Miranda warning 13 times — Understand the parameters of the decision. Once is almost always sufficient if it is done correctly. Also, there are four warnings, not 12. Document, document, document: when they were read, by whom, how (I like the off of a card method myself; helps in court in my opinion), where exactly, who witnessed them (have at least one person, more if possible), and what was the response of the suspect. That part is important. They have to understand and waive them.
9. Don’t forget to keep a timeline — As soon as you can, get the timeline going. Use the same time piece for each entry if possible and coordinate with dispatch times. Try to be precise but allow for some approximates. It isn’t an exact science but using the timeline shows professionalism and an attention to detail.
10. Don’t discard your notes — There is case law and many different theories about this issue but nowadays, it just seems to be better to save any notes you take, especially in a big case. Therefore; write them as though you were a professional! Because after all you are. Jotting down: “Found the asshole hiding in the closet” isn’t recommended.
At some point everything you do, say, don’t do, don’t say, write, or don’t write may be an issue for a professional defense attorney and brought up in court. You live and die by what you write in your reports. You live and die professionally by how you conduct yourself. And again, remember: one botched investigation can affect your subsequent investigations for years to come.