Building a top-notch investigations team

Forensic technicians interviewing suspects may make for entertaining television, but investigation teams really run on the opposing talents theory

By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)

The TV is on, and I walk into the living room and bend to sit down on the couch.

“Pops, please get out of here.”

“Why honey?” I respond. 

“You know why. I’m watching CSI and you’re gonna ruin it.”

“What do you mean? How can I ruin it?”

“You know, you’re gonna start saying, ‘That can’t happen, that wouldn’t work, they wouldn’t do that, they don’t have machines than can analyze an eyelash and have the owner’s picture pop up.’ ...I just wanna watch.”

That’s a pretty accurate example of a conversation with either of my two CSI-enamored daughters when fuddy-duddy, logic-oriented, realistic-minded-cop-dad walks in during that forensic fantasy hour. I’m sure most reading this have had similar conversations with a clueless relative while watching most any cop show on TV: Diagnosis Murder, Dragnet, CHiPs, T.J. Hooker, and especially the CSIs (Vegas, Miami, New York, or Intercourse, PA).

We teach several Street Survival Seminars in Las Vegas every year and a while back I asked a couple of Vegas cops if I could see the forensics lab featured on the TV show. The response from a sergeant in attendance: “Yeah, we’re looking for it too.”

Made For Television
Some of the more obvious laughable aspects of the shows (and I’ve only watched two) are:

• lab work being analyzed and results returned to investigators in less than six months
• computers that can pinpoint the geographical origin of lint found on a pair of pants
• lab analysts who actually talk to investigators
• forensic detectives who understand million dollar computer software programs
• forensic detectives who have access to million dollar computer software programs

And what I think to be the most unrealistic aspect of the shows...

• Forensic technicians interviewing suspects!

I know that last bullet point will irk some people. And it certainly isn’t meant to imply that there aren’t any forensic experts with the ability to interview bad guys. But in my experience, there aren’t many police officers who are really competent in both of these areas — both processing evidence and getting confessions from criminals.

I’ve learned from travelling the country during the past decade that every law enforcement agency in the country is different. I also recognize and realize that the size of the department often determines the roles of its personnel. Many — and probably most — police officers around the country out of necessity, are “Jacks/Jills of all trades.”

Assessing Talents, Making Assignments
I spent nearly 30 years at a department that was comprised of about 75 full-time sworn personnel. I ran detectives for six years and had 11 exceptional investigators. During the second half of the ‘90s I was also the Investigations Commander of a Countywide Homicide Task Force. In both positions my only true contribution was in the picking and assigning of personnel. In order to do that well, I had to make assessments of other peoples’ talents. In my experience — and again I know I will get emails assailing this opinion — the personality traits of talented evidence technicians and talented interviewers/interrogators couldn’t be more different. And, I believe, the better someone is at one of those skill sets, the worse they are at the other.

My best interviewers — the guys who could spot a lie, read the body, and get confessions — were the last ones I would let handle the evidence work at a serious crime scene or comb through the paperwork on a complicated financial case. Conversely, my best forensics people — the guys that could find the important document, unearth a piece of financial wizardry, or piece together an important and telling string of seemingly unconnected events — were the last ones I would send in (alone) to interview the suspect.

My pop psychology theory is this. Really good evidence techs tend to be on the obsessive compulsive side (they’re focused, logical, patient, dispassionate). The great interviewer/interrogator types are, well, the opposite (they’re flighty, intuitive, emotional, and passionate). The best forensics guys I knew had meticulous desks. Everything — and I mean everything — was in its place, from paper clips and staples to files and phone messages. In contrast, the best interviewers could barely find their desks under the mountain of paper, files, coffee cups, magazines, and donut bags. This isn’t a slight to either of the aforementioned personality types. In fact, studies show that an organized mind as well as a disorganized one, is in the eye of the beholder.

By Way of Example
In my Unit I had several great interviewers. Ray was arguably one of the best and most dogged detectives our PD ever had. He was great at spotting lies and getting confessions, but he wasn’t the neatest guy on the planet. On his desk, next to countless other pointless artifacts, was five-years-worth of phone messages speared by a single spindle. Some were from people who had either retired from law enforcement or were dead, but to Ray the stack was a necessary working file.

However, a sergeant that worked for me had his own perspective of the detective’s desks and became fixated on Ray’s ever growing pile. In his mind the messages could have (and should have) been logged on a computer or placed in a book and he made Ray aware of his views. But Ray didn’t care because there was a method to his madness, but to his OCD oriented supervisor, there was no method, there was just — madness. So those messages became a fixation for both, caused a rift in the relationship and in a way contributed to altered careers. Never mind that Ray was exceptional at interviewing people and was a great detective, the damn desk was a mess, and that became the distracting focus to a supervisor that missed the point of the detective’s role.

The hard part of commanding investigators is in communicating the reality of the opposing talents theory (a.k.a. the theory of multiple intelligences, first proposed by Howard Gardner in the 1980s). The guys that worked with me on a daily basis understood my thought process and accepted it as a reality, mostly because my philosophy allowed them to do what empowered them and work to their strengths. The Task Force however, was more of a challenge.

A sergeant from another department was selected as part of the team because he had a forensic background and found pleasure in spending hours alone sifting through paperwork. He was also a friend with more time on the job than I had. During one homicide investigation he found a piece of evidence that tied a case together and put us in a position to confront the suspect. Elated, he asked me if he could be the one to interview the suspect. I looked him in the eye, thanked him for his remarkable find, gave him credit for moving the case forward and then... denied him the opportunity to interview the bad guy and close the case.

He was unhappy.

So I took him to lunch, listened to his pleas, let him lodge his complaint, threaten my life, and again….I turned him down for the interview. Eventually, being a boss himself, he agreed that individual investigators had unique talents and limitations, and assignments had to be made based on those realities. He was a great evidence tech, but a lousy interviewer. Odds are if I sent him in there he would have confessed before the suspect did.

Investigations are reliant on a variety of things: good witnesses, sloppy criminals, patrol response, forensics, investigation skills, the ability to relate to people, timing, and luck. But they are also dependant on bosses assigning the right people to the right roles. This calls for good communication skills and putting egos aside. Catching, charging and prosecuting bad guys has to be the mission of anyone — and everyone — in investigations.

To paraphrase Peter Drucker, one of the world’s most respected management gurus: “You can’t make a shortstop out of a catcher no matter how hard you try.” In law enforcement, managers have to be able to recognize each individual’s unique talents and make assignments based on those observations. To pretend that people possess the same talents because they are in the same pay grade is both ludicrous and counterproductive.

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