Notes for the occasional major case manager.
To this end, a brief reac-quaintance with basic investigative concepts will help managers react to these incidents with increased confidence by knowing what to do initially, as well as through familiarity with case management practices that enhance opportunities for investigative success. To coordinate investigations, managers can use these fundamental approaches seldom addressed in formal training and often forgotten or overlooked in actual operations. Measures include initial-response organizational tasks and investigative principles that can contribute to a successful outcome.
Anecdotes and experience appear to indicate that errors happen more often at the outset of criminal investigations than at any other time. This dilemma frequently occurs if investigators fail to ensure order at crime scenes or neglect to create it in their own approaches to investigations. Therefore, managers should ensure that investigators accomplish the following tasks early in an investigation.
Secure the Crime Scene
Supervisors should anticipate that a scene is not protected prior to their arrival, then take measures to secure it as soon as possible. This means clearing it of unnecessary personnel and identifying and interviewing all individuals previously present to determine whether they were involved in or witnessed the crime, as well as if and how they may have contaminated or altered the scene. This step proves especially important with emergency medical personnel, firefighters, and coroners; managers should ensure that their personnel determine not only what these first responders did while inside the scene but also what they saw that may have changed before police arrival. Securing the scene includes establishing a perimeter, with uniformed personnel if possible, to limit entrance to and exit from the area to authorized personnel and keeping a record of those persons who access it. When establishing the perimeter, managers should make sure it is sufficiently comprehensive--evidence often is missed because examined areas were too constricted.
Deploy Sufficient Personnel
Nearly all agencies face lean budgets and limited staffs. However, few things can slow down an investigation as quickly as assigning an insufficient number of personnel to perform investigative tasks in a timely manner. Managers should ensure the allocation of an adequate amount of officers to simultaneously conduct several investigative functions. Generally, at least four should cover scene security, evidence processing, witness interviews, and case supervision. The location and complexity of the crime scene, number of witnesses, and other factors can affect workforce requirements. Therefore, managers should err on overstaffing, relieving any unnecessary personnel when needed, and consider assistance from other agencies if necessary.
Establish Command and Investigative Structures
Managers should choose an individual, not necessarily an investigator, with sufficient authority to secure and allocate personnel and resources to facilitate the investigation and remain in charge. Further, supervisors immediately should assign a lead investigator who serves many purposes, such as providing a conduit through which investigative data is assimilated and leads are assigned to appropriate personnel. Information rapidly loses value when no one views the big picture and coordinates the gathering of additional pieces of the investigative puzzle. Managers should consider requesting assistance from on-site clerical, media relations, and other support personnel in addition to investigators and uniformed officers. The greatest investigative structure, however, becomes ineffective without adequate means of documenting investigative actions--especially in cases involving multiple jurisdictions. Various agencies employ countless systems. In general, managers should establish a predominant manner of case reporting and ensure that reports quickly are completed and provided to the lead investigator.
Establish a Command Post
A command post, a known location to reliably contact supervisory and lead investigative personnel, should be in relative proximity to the major scene of operations and have sufficient resources, such as telecommunications and clerical support. Far too often, especially in rural areas, some agencies do not establish a command post, leaving investigators to operate, literally, on the trunks of their cars. This results in little cooperation with or coordination from those officers in charge of the case. Further, a command post ensures that adequate and thorough communication occurs between all personnel involved.
Determine What Occurred Before Investigators Arrive
Determining what happened before law enforcement arrives often proves easier in theory than practice. But, securing the crime scene through interviewing people present before their arrival accomplishes most of this task. Investigators should take nothing for granted; managers must ensure that investigators interview those individuals whose jobs require them to volunteer information, as well as locate and question witnesses who departed the area. Most important, investigators need accurate knowledge of "who did what" before police involvement.
Conduct a Neighborhood Canvass
The neighborhood canvass constitutes one of the most productive investigative tools. Even the most calculated of crimes cannot overcome the free will of humans. When crimes occur, somebody usually saw something, and, often, those witnesses only tell their stories if asked. Managers should ensure that investigators conduct neighborhood canvasses, which rarely are too large but frequently too constricted. The canvass should extend far enough to encompass any reasonable expectation of useful information from witnesses, and investigators should make as many attempts as necessary to contact them. Even after accomplishing this task, managers should consider recanvassing an area because reluctant witnesses may only speak out upon repeated questioning.
No comprehensive manual exists for every investigative contingency. However, managers can use certain established principles to guide them in successfully overseeing a case.
Be a Supervisor
Supervisors should let the investigators investigate. Often, with minimally established investigative structures and command posts or extremely limited personnel, supervisors personally become involved in tasks, such as critical interviews and evidence searches. In so doing, they lose their managerial perspective, are unable to see the case comprehensively, and become difficult for subordinates to contact for decisions. Supervisors should slow down, remember their roles as managers, and facilitate the work of investigating officers rather than try to do their jobs for them.
Start with Initial Information
Many times, investigators may jump to conclusions, resulting in negative consequences when those initial presumptions do not pan out. Other times, they may not know what happened or how they should proceed. Managers can avoid the former problem and address the latter by acting on initial information and proceeding outward in a logical manner.
In most cases, the crime scene can tell much about a case. Forensic science capabilities improve daily, increasing the quantity and quality of useful physical evidence. Often within the scene, a victim, alive or dead, can provide information that indicates motives, opportunities, and identities of those responsible. Investigators can glean such information, commonly known as victimology, through time lines of victims' activities prior to the crime, their interpersonal relationships, and a myriad of other aspects unique to them that, consequently, are distinctive to the perpetrator. Further, investigators should interview anyone present prior to or during police involvement, verifying their stories. These initial witnesses frequently have critical information, may be involved in the crime themselves, and are difficult to identify and locate once they leave the scene.
Personnel constraints and sound judgment dictate that investigators prioritize leads and pursue those with the most potential first. This does not mean dismissing lower-order leads; investigators should cover all viable ones. They should not prematurely disregard witnesses, quickly dismissing their accounts as irrelevant or limiting questions to "Did you see what happened?" Rather than asking a witness if they saw anything, investigators should ask them what they saw, noting witnesses who fail to notice anything unusual.
One of the most common errors investigators make involves projecting themselves as the perpetrator and rejecting leads because they would not act in a certain way in similar circumstances. Countless investigators have explained away leads by stating, "The suspect wouldn't have done that," only to find out later that the suspect did exactly that. Investigators should not erroneously prejudge forensic evidence, particularly wounds or weapons, and ignore conflicting information because of preconceived assumptions about causes of death or comparable conclusions. While investigators must draw inferences from preliminary observations, they should avoid making ironclad assumptions about the nature of physical evidence until qualified experts verify the opinions. In addition, investigators should authenticate witness information whenever possible without taking shortcuts; they should follow any lead chain back to its original source.
Do It Now
The passage of time diminishes the availability of both physical evidence and individuals' recall of information. For example, if an investigator delays checking a dumpster until tomorrow morning, overnight sanitation crews may empty it tonight, taking key evidence. Investigators quickly should pursue hunches. If a witness "just isn't right," and investigators want to search the individual's vehicle or home for evidence, they should do so, if legal means are available, before any evidence can be hidden or destroyed.
Recognize the Obvious
Television crime shows and movie mysteries with elaborate plot twists leave viewers in suspense until a surprise ending when investigators identify the suspect and establish guilt. Such performances have conditioned citizens; real criminal investigations rarely follow such a pattern. Most of the time, a perpetrator is identified early in an investigation. Usually, only a limited number of people have both the motive and opportunity to commit a certain offense, thus, evidence tends to point toward a particular suspect. Unfortunately, many people perceive criminal acts as more complex than they really are. English theologian William of Occam recognized this human tendency in medieval times and put forth Occam's Razor: "The simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable, and explanations for unknown phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is already known." (1) This essentially means that the least complicated explanation of an event is usually the correct one. Investigators should remember this principle and not venture into far-fetched theories until more likely scenarios are examined and eliminated.
Avoid Tunnel Vision
Although Occam's Razor encourages one to look closely at the simplest explanation first, investigators must avoid becoming myopic. It is tempting to fixate on a particular theory of a case and ignore or dismiss evidence and information contradictory to it. In fact, the outset of an investigation often is too early to theorize at all. Instead, supervisors should ensure that investigative bases are covered while implementing fundamental concepts of logic and common sense as a guide.
Police managers sometimes lose sight of basic concepts of conducting major investigations. By addressing some fundamental elements of an investigative response along with a few principles to facilitate a successful case, supervisors can ensure more effective results in their agencies. These measures are not exhaustive or comprehensive, nor do they guarantee a solution to a crime. Rather, they represent a framework for implementing inherent managerial and investigative skills that may provide occasional major case managers with a bit of confidence when they find themselves wondering what step they should take next.
(1) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., s.v. "Occam's razor."
By GARY ROTHWELL, DPA
Special Agent Rothwell heads the Perry office of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.