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The basics still work when it comes to investigations

It doesn’t matter what the crime is, your initial criminal investigation process is the same

Crime scene tape

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By Greg Lindsay

It is very easy to get sucked into the latest trends, such as current facial recognition programs or personalized department mobile applications. While these tools have their place in today’s technology-driven world, it’s of utmost importance to remember the basics of cop work, which form the backbone of law enforcement.

It doesn’t matter what the crime is, your initial criminal investigation process is the same. Let’s take a look at what that involves.

What crime occurred?

This part may appear or seem to be the easiest to conquer. However, I have seen my fair share of law enforcement officers and detectives focus on what they want the crime to be rather than what statute was truly violated.

This is where you look at the facts of the incident. Do not try to “Hollywood-ize” the scene. Think of yourself as Joe Friday where you are looking for “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Find out if you’re dealing with a domestic disturbance, an assault with a deadly weapon, or a simple battery. Then document the incident and follow the process. It will lead to more than you know.

Simply put, this is the crime scene. Did the crime occur at a residence, park, or a fast-food joint? If so, was it in the kitchen, bathroom, or some other specific area in the restaurant? Just think specifically about where the crime occurred.

Where did the crime occur?

After you know where the crime occurred, backtrack and see other areas that may have led up to the final crime scene area. If there are multiple crime scenes, label them as such.

One very important point about the crime scene is this: Law enforcement only has one chance to preserve the scene and evidence. If you, as the first on the scene, do not set this up properly, the entire case can be affected.

Depending on the crime (i.e., homicide, assault with a deadly weapon, or theft), this will determine how you protect the crime scene. You will need to decide whether you need to set up an inner and outer perimeter, prepare for a command post, or if it is something patrol units can handle on their own. Simply remember, the crime scene must be protected.

When, whom, why and how

This is where you start to gather your information. The why and how sections will often be more focused on by investigations; however, it is important for patrol to also consider them. Often, patrol shifts have more insight than they realize and know that the suspect may have had a motive because of something that occurred in the past.

Simply put, in your initial report, make sure you include when the crime occurred, who was involved in the crime, and if you have information leading to why and how, include that as well.

Identification and collection of evidence

What is evidence? More specifically, what is criminal evidence? Evidence refers to information or objects found that can be admitted into court.

Of course, there are different types of evidence, whether it be real, testimonial, demonstrative, documentary, or digital. Detailing evidence would require a completely different paper, so we can save that for another time.

The point of this part of the process is to recognize what you have. If you have a Crime Scene Technician available, utilize their specialized training and experience. Since you already identified what type of crime you have at the beginning of the process, you know what to look for or collect.

If you have a burglary crime scene, you know you are looking for broken glass, burglary tools, cameras, or surveillance footage, etc. You are not looking for a severed finger, head (true story), or dope. Now, if you find those things, document it but consider what evidence you are trying to find during this part of the process.

This is also a part where you can work on your interviewing skills. Get statements and document them in your written report.

Once you find your evidence, collect it properly, document it properly, and book it into the property room based on your department’s policies and procedures.

Initial report

After all the fun and excitement, it’s time for the rubber to meet the road. This is why it’s important to take proper notes so you can write your report clearly and concisely. Taking notes does not need to be complicated, but they should be legible as you never know who may need to see them. When you author your report, this is not the time for creative writing. Be clear and concise. Write what you did and do not write for someone else.

Evidence obtained via legal process

Often, this part of the process is completed by the Criminal Investigation Division (CID). However, think about the Missouri v. McNeely case law, which changed the patrol function in obtaining blood draws for DUIs.

In keeping with the basics, let’s work this out. A traffic stop is conducted. A strong odor of alcohol is emitting, there are empty beer cans on the floorboard, and the driver is all over the road. All initial evidence and indications of a DUI.

However, the suspect refuses to consent to a breath or blood test; therefore, you must be able to author a search warrant to obtain the blood. The same thing applies to more complicated cases. All you do is articulate what you need and then move toward the proper process to obtain said information or evidence.

Identification of criminal suspects

If you have done a good job up to here, this part will be unexciting. However, if you have missed the initial steps, it causes investigators to go back and review things from the very beginning.

Surveillance and intelligence gathering

Surveillance and intelligence gathering are not simply sitting in a car eating junk food and waiting for your target to leave. There’s social media, work history and locations, family members, and so many other ways to gather information. That is exactly what surveillance is: The act of monitoring or observing individuals, groups, or environments to obtain information to be used in your case.

It can be physical observation, electronic monitoring, video recording, data collection and analysis. The biggest factor is gathering accurate, current and solid case information.

Interview and interrogation

At this point, you have identified your suspect, and possibly obtained a residential or personal search warrant, and it’s time to interview and interrogate. With this article focused on the basics, remember there is a difference between interviewing and interrogation. An interview is used to gather information. An interrogation is a process used for the goal of eliciting a confession or admission of guilt.

The important thing to note here, especially for new law enforcement personnel, is not to say things you cannot deliver on. You can use whatever ruse you like or any other anecdote you have, but make sure you know what you are doing. There are several interview courses out there; find one in your area and learn the tips and tricks that have worked.

Arrest and prosecution

Then comes the arrest and prosecution. You have worked on your case, obtained a confession and are ready to take the suspect to jail. Let me take a moment and tell you how gratifying it is to put the cuffs on someone. Especially if you are in an assignment that you are passionate about. For me, the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force is that. It is the most evil I have ever seen; however, getting a solid arrest and prosecution is a fantastic feeling.

It’s truly amazing and sometimes short-lived because you realize after all your work, the suspect is making a plea deal, and getting minimal time served. It can be gut-wrenching; however, do not let that side of things stop you from doing the right thing.

At the end of the day, this is part of the process. Some prosecutions will be better than others, and some will make you scratch your head. Some cases will be so close; however, you may not have enough to make an arrest. It can be difficult to deal with.

Regardless, do not allow this to change your morals, ethics and ability to do good work. Continue to do solid, good old-fashioned cop work. Then no matter what, you will be able to look at yourself in the mirror and know you did the best damn job you could.

Supervisors, remember this: If your team members are competent and confident in the fundamentals, then they can execute high-level investigations, serve the community well and limit your department from liability.

About the author

Greg Lindsay currently serves as an investigator with the State of Idaho Attorney General’s Office – Internet Crimes Against Children Unit. He was previously employed with the Ada County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) and Ventura County Sheriff’s Office (VCSO). Greg’s passion is that of juvenile crimes and personal development for both staff members and individuals. While serving as a supervisor at the VCSO, he put together a large-scale jail training for the newer deputies and civilian staff. Greg was named Crisis Intervention Officer of the Year in 2017 and Employee of the Year in 2015 as an SRO. Greg’s experience ranges from custody, patrol, juvenile crimes, SRO, major crimes detective, supervisor and investigator. Greg is also a certified personal trainer and enjoys doing obstacle course races (OCR).