Strong Teamwork Needed to Solve Violent Crimes
*This article is part of IPS’ August focus on teambuilding and its impact on public safety.*
By Nicole Cain, full-time Criminal Justice faculty member at American Military University
Despite what fictional crime dramas portray, violent crimes are never solved by a lone detective or a crime-sleuthing duo. Investigating violent crimes—and specifically homicides—requires extensive teamwork.
Such teams often consist of first responders, detectives, crime scene investigators, professionals from the medical examiner’s office, individuals from the state attorney’s office (SAO), forensic examiners, citizens, the victim’s family, and numerous other individuals.
Who’s Involved in a Homicide Investigation?
Typically, once the investigators, crime technicians, and a representative from the SAO arrive on scene, the first responding patrol officer briefs them about the case. This brief often includes information about the person who reported the crime, the victim’s name, the number of witnesses, any suspect information, and a description of the crime scene.
Crime Scene Technician
The crime scene technician usually enters the crime scene first and documents it before there’s any further contamination. The job is to properly record the scene (video, photographs, and sketches), process the scene (latent prints, DNA, and trace evidence) and collect and preserve evidence. After the crimes scene technician records the scene, investigators review it.
It is important for investigators to see the scene in its original state. The investigator helps to identify evidence that needs to be collected at the scene. Analyzing physical evidence recovered from a homicide scene can provide clues about who was involved in the crime, the weapons used, and the sequence of events.
Crime scene assessment may immediately reveal the nature of the homicide. For example, if an investigator enters a crime scene and observes a deceased female with a firearm laying near her right hand, a small bullet hole on the right side of her head, a large exit wound on the left side of her head, and a note, then the investigator may initially surmise that the woman committed suicide. Of course, the investigator would corroborate those facts with others working the scene.
Investigators must examine the deceased while on scene. It is important to note what the victim is wearing. Investigators may also check for identification to determine the identity of the victim.
The investigator looks for signs of trauma (i.e. gunshot wounds, blunt-force trauma, knife wounds, ligature marks, and defensive wounds). The investigator also checks for the presence of lividity (pooling of the blood due to gravity), rigor mortis (stiffening of the body), and any other signs of decomposition to assist the medical examiner in determining the time of death.
In the case of homicide, the victim is always transported to the morgue so that the medical examiner can examine the body. The investigator attends the autopsy. The main function of the medical examiner is to establish the cause, manner, and time of death.
[Related Article: Careers in Forensics: Investigating Death]
Forensic analysis encompasses a broad range of scientific examinations of physical evidence conducted in crime laboratories. Forensic scientists, or criminalists, are highly trained in their respective specialty whether its fingerprint, firearm, serology/biology, drug analysis, or another specialty. Crime scene evidence and forensic analysis can assist investigators in determining the truth about what happened at a crime scene.
Investigators must also review the victim’s cell phone, computer, and other devices for clues. Social media accounts, text messages, phone records, emails, and other data can contain a wealth of information. Search warrants or court orders are often required, so it is important to develop a positive working relationship with the SAO early in the case.
The Team’s Focus Is on the Victim
Investigators must next focus on the victim. Who is he or she? In many cases, the victim’s identify is known immediately through family members. In cases where the victim’s identity is not known, the medical examiner will using fingerprints and/or dental records.
[Related Article: Law Enforcement Investigation Tools Expand Beyond DNA to Bacteria]
Interviewing Family Members, Friends, Bystanders
Investigators begin by retracing the victim’s last hours and verifying his or her whereabouts. Who last saw the victim alive? Who found the victim deceased? It becomes essential that the investigator learns as much about the victim as possible to provide clues about the suspect and motivation for murder. Securing information concerning the victim’s identity, family, friends, injuries, occupation, interests, lifestyle, and habits will start to provide pieces of the puzzle as to what may have happened to this victim.
It is important to interview potential witnesses and to conduct a neighborhood canvass to determine if anyone saw or heard anything unusual. Citizens with information may be reluctant to come forward, so investigators must ease their concerns.
Relying on Teamwork
There are many people involved in investigating a homicide, which requires considerable teamwork and collaboration. Law enforcement must work hard to maintain strong and positive relationships with individuals from these other agencies in order to quickly and efficiently gather evidence and identify suspects. The key to solving homicides in a timely manner is to have strong teamwork from the start.
About the Author: Nicole Cain has been an instructor with APUS for four years, earning a full-time faculty position in 2012. She has instructed numerous criminology and forensic courses online for more than nine years. Nicole has more than 16 years of law enforcement experience serving in a variety of capacities including patrol operations, uniform crime scene, community oriented policing (COP), and criminal investigations. She is currently assigned to the Criminal Investigations Section’s Felony Intake where she prepares all felony cases for the State Attorney’s Office. During her career in law enforcement, she has authored police reports, arrest affidavits, and search warrants, observed autopsies, testified in court, processed crime scenes, interviewed witnesses and conducted interrogations. She attends Southeastern University where she is pursuing her Doctoral degree in Education (Ed.D).