PostHeaderIcon Homicide Investigations: Do’s and Don’t's

“To Protect and Preserve.” Those are the words that should be on the mind of every officer who responds to the scene of a homicide.

First responders have an immense responsibility. Not only do they have to assess the situation in a hurry—the victim may still be alive—-, the possibility of the killer still being on scene is quite probable. And, those officers must realize that the key to solving the case—evidence—must be protected. So, while facing the threat of personal harm and saving the life of others, patrol officers practically need to step through the scene as if walking on eggshells. That’s not asking too much of them, right?

Keep in mind, there’s no set-in-stone method of investigating a murder, because no two scenes are identical. And, no two officers/crime scene investigators think exactly alike. However, there are certain things that must be done, and there are mistakes that must not me made. Here are a few pointers.

The Do’s

1. First responders must proceed to the scene as quickly and safely as possible. Why? Possibly catch the bad guy and to prevent the destruction/removal of evidence.

2. Quickly start the crime-solving wheels in motion by contacting the necessary parties, such as investigators, coroner, EMS, etc.

3. Arrest the suspect, if possible.

4. Document EVERYTHING.

5. Preserve and collect evidence.

6. Assume that EVERYTHING is potential evidence.

7. Secure the scene. Absolutely no one is allowed to enter who’s not a key person in the investigation.

8. Treat every single suspicious death as a homicide until the investigation proves otherwise.

9. Keep an open mind.

10. Photograph, photograph, photograph!

11. Study the victim. Learn everything there is to know about them. Know them. Know what they ate, what they liked to do, where they liked to go, who they liked and disliked, who liked them and who hated them, etc. Uncover every single detail of their life. The victim is often the single most important piece of evidence in the case.

12. Share information with members of your investigative team. Bounce thoughts and ideas around among the group. Talk to everyone involved—patrol officers on the scene, the coroner, other investigators, the crime scene techs, etc.

The Don’t's

1. Do not assume anything. Sure, the call came in as a suicide, but that doesn’t mean that’s what actually happened. That’s merely what a witness told the dispatcher. And definitely do not assume there are no weapons present at the scene simply because that’s what your dispatcher told you. Again, he/she was given that information by someone at the scene who may not know.

2. Do not assume the suspect has left the scene. Treat everyone there as a possible murderer until you learn differently. Be smart and be safe.

3. Do not allow anyone to leave the area until you’ve interviewed them. Treat everyone as a possible witness. Sometimes people don’t realize they’ve seen an important detail.

4. Failing to secure a scene. Family members have a tendency to get in the way. They feel the need to be a part of the scene. They want answers. However, absolutely do not allow anyone inside the scene. This includes members of the police department if they’re not part of the investigation. And I mean everyone, including the mayor, the chief, the sheriff, etc. (The last one’s easier said than done, right deputies?).

5. Releasing information to the media. Hold your cards close to your chest until you have an idea of what information can be released to the public. Remember, what you say will be on the evening news!

6. Don’t get a case of tunnelvision. Keep your mind open to everything, at first. Then as the case starts to come together, the focus of the investigation will narrow. A murder investigation works like a funnel. First you dump all you’ve found into the large end. Then you keep pushing and pushing until finally the killer’s name pops out of the other, smaller end.

7. Failing to take enough notes and photographs. You only have one shot at this, so take more than you need while the scene is still intact. There are no do-overs.

8. Don’t take sloppy notes and keep sloppy records. Remember, what you write down could/will eventually be seen in court. And that will be a reflection of how the investigation was conducted. Clean notes = a clean, tight investigation.

9. Don’t discuss a case where members of the general public have an opportunity to hear the conversation! Words are too easy to misunderstand and that can come back to bite a detective in the…well, a place where the sun doesn’t shine. Think about it… A trial witness says, “Yes, I heard the detective say…”

10. Again, a case is not a suicide until the investigation proves it is. How many murderers have “gotten away with it” because of lazy officers conducting slipshod investigations? Sure, it’s easy to take a peek at a victim and assume suicide. But every case should warrant a closer look. You never know, especially if the circumstances are suspicious. And never discount that detective’s “gut feeling,” the investigator’s 6th sense.

11. Do not rush into a crime scene without first taking everything in. Take a moment to assess the area. Are there any dangers, including hidden ones, such as gas leaks, poisonous chemicals, A KILLER WITH A GUN?

12. Don’t assume the victim is dead. Check for vital signs. You certainly don’t want him to lie there suffering while you stand around waiting for the coroner. A few seconds could be the difference between life and death.

13. Don’t assume that the cooperative witness with the happy face is innocent. He could very well be the killer. If so, arrest that clown!

PostHeaderIcon Eric Garner: Death By Chokehold? Maybe Not

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Eric Garner, a huge man who would be a handful to arrest for any officer, died last week after a brief scuffle with NYPD officers as they attempted to arrest and handcuff him.

Attempting to place cuffs on the wrists of someone who’s 6’3″ and 350 lbs. can be a real challenge, even when they’re compliant. However, when that someone resists the officer’s attempts to restrain him, well, that’s a real problem, and an extremely dangerous situation for both the officer and the subject of the arrest.

When someone uses force to resist an arrest, officers must then use the amount of force necessary to gain control of the person. Normally, that means the officers must use a greater force than that used by the suspect. If not, the combative suspects would always win the battle to run off and continue their criminal activity.

Police officers receive a fair amount of training in the areas of defensive tactics and arrest techniques. They’re taught how to handcuff properly, how to utilize various compliance tactics, and how best to defend themselves against an attack. The object is always to gain control and cuff the suspect’s hands behind the back, with everyone involved remaining injury free, if possible. Again, though, when a suspect resists arrest officers must do what it takes to bring the situation to a quick resolution. The longer it goes on the more chance of injury.

In the recent case of Eric Garner, bystanders captured the arrest on video. In the short film we can see the tremendous size difference between Garner and the arresting officers. Have another look (below) before we continue.

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We hear Garner say something to officers that indicates they’ve had past dealings (Garner had previously been arrested over 30 times). Therefore, I’m sure the officers knew what to expect the moment they moved in to make the arrest…resistance. The fact that the officers stood there for a few minutes chatting with Garner was a good indication that they expected him to become combative and were probably waiting for assistance before placing their hands on him. I say this based on past experiences, not specific knowledge about this case.

As I predicted while watching the video, the moment the officers touched Garner he began to resist. Knowing that suspects, especially the big, strong ones, are more easily controlled when on the ground, that’s exactly what the officers did. They took Garner to the ground.

FYI for writers—The ground/sidewalk/pavement/hardwood, etc. provides a sturdy surface that’s used to pin hands, legs, arms, etc. to prevent further movement. Can’t get them to the ground? A wall or car hood also serves the same purpose. Otherwise, the suspect, who’s often much stronger than the arresting officer, could easily fight their way to freedom while severely injuring the smaller officer(s).

So, taking Garner to the ground is where we begin and where we discuss the technique(s) used to get him there.

Within minutes after watching the video, many media sources, civilians, and, of course, the Reverend Al Sharpton, began to yell and scream and print in bold type, “They killed him using an illegal chokehold!” First of all, chokeholds are not illegal. However, they may be against a department’s policy and procedures. The NYPD does indeed prohibit the use of the tactic.

Before going further, let’s talk about the chokehold. Just so you know that I have a bit of experience in this field—I’m a former police academy master defensive tactics instructor and instructor trainer. I’m one of the early members of a defensive tactics federation. I have a very strong background in Aikido and Chin-Na. I’m trained and skilled in knife- and stick-fighting. I ran my own school. I’ve taught rape prevention and self-defense for women at numerous colleges and at my facility. I’ve trained private security, military, and I’ve trained and taught executive bodyguards.

Chokeholds were once taught in police academies across the country. I learned it as a rookie and later taught the technique in the academy. Although, we stopped teaching it many years ago because the tactic had caused death. I’d like to point out that when applied and released properly, the tactic is effective and safe. Still, death had occurred and we stopped teaching it in favor of techniques that are much safer to utilize.

The questions stemming from Garner’s death are:

1. Did Garner die as a result of a chokehold?

2. Did the officer actually use a chokehold?

The answer to question number one is an easy one. We don’t know. That information has not yet been released by the medical examiner’s office. Anything other than “we don’t know” is nothing more than speculation and guesses at this point.

2. I have my doubts that an autopsy will reveal any damage to Mr. Garner’s airway, and there are two reasons for which I’ve based that opinion.

a) at no time during the video did I see any of the officers using a true chokehold.

b) a choke hold is a technique that pinches off the blood supply to the brain resulting in unconsciousness. It does not affect the airway. In the video of the NYPD incident, it does not appear that the officer did anything to compromise the suspect’s airway. The suspect was heard a few times saying, “I can’t breathe.” The tone of his voice sounded as if he was indeed in distress but, again, the chokehold, when properly applied does not stop airflow. If Garner could speak then he was getting some oxygen.

*By the way, there’s a counter move we teach officers who are placed in a choke hold by suspects. Tuck your chin into the crook of the choker’s elbow and the goon can squeeze all day long but he won’t be able to shut off your oxygen supply.

The photo below shows an officer with his arm around Garner’s neck. However, to properly and effectively apply a chokehold, both arms must be in contact with the neck, one on either side. In the image below, there’s nothing that would indicate the ability to successfully choke anyone into unconsciousness. What you see in the screenshot from the video is definitely not a chokehold.

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Here’s a photo of the technique, one that would/could cause unconsciousness. Still, the airway is totally unaffected.

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There’s a rule of thumb in defensive tactics, arrest techniques, martial arts, and other various styles of fighting, and that’s, Control the head and the body will follow.” Or, If you can direct uke’s head, you can direct his entire body. In some of the martial arts the “uke” is the person who “receives” a technique.

As someone who’s trained in fighting styles, and as a defensive tactics instructor/instructor trainer, what I saw in the video was what appeared to be an officer attempting to control the head of a much larger suspect, one they’d dealt with many times over the years. I also saw a second officer attempt to pull Garner’s head downward, toward the pavement. Another try at controlling the head.

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The officer wearing the shirt lettered “D.D. has his right hand on the right side of Garner’s head, and appears to be pulling it in a downward motion. The officer in green (the same officer accused of applying a chokehold) is leaning backward, another indicator they were trying to get Garner to the ground where they could better control him.

Remember, though, I’m seeing this with different “eyes” than non-trained citizens. I know what it’s like to be in situations like this one and those that are far worse.

Now, do I believe the altercation caused Mr. Garner’s death. Yes, I do. Who’s at fault? Well, if the arrest was justified, then most of the blame, sadly, rests squarely on the suspect’s shoulders. One, for committing a crime (a felony). Two, for resisting arrest, a situation that caused the officers to use the force necessary to gain control.

Some say that had Garner received quicker medical attention he may have survived. This, too, is something that, at this point, is speculation. Could someone have saved Gardner’s life? At this point we do not know. What we do know is that police officers are not medically trained. Did they summon help? I believe so. Do they have the authority to tell emergency medical responders what to do, how to do it, and when to do it? No, they do not.

Finally, situations such as this one are often difficult to witness, especially by people who’ve never been in an officer’s shoes. Or, for that matter, never been in any sort of physical altercation. Street fights and physical force are not pleasant experiences for anyone. They can be extremely violent, especially in appearance to the untrained eye. But it’s impossible for spectators to know what’s going on between officers and suspects, even while standing a only a few feet away.

Mr. Garner’s distressed, “I can’t breathe,” comments during the struggle were apparently sincere. Unfortunately, officers are used to hearing suspects say everything and anything as a means to get the officer to release enough pressure where they could escape custody or hurt or kill the officer. As I commented to writers yesterday, officers hear that sort of thing all the time. As well as, “I’m pregnant.” I have back problems.” “My doctors says you can’t handcuff me behind my back.” “I have AIDS.” And so it goes, with everything and anything they can say or do to get out of the arrest and going to jail.

It’s always a tragedy when someone dies during a police action. It’s a tough and gut-wrenching experience for the family to endure, and it’s important for officers to realize and consider that family members weren’t there, they don’t understand what took place, and that they’ve suffered a huge loss that can never be returned to them. However, their gentle and loving father, son, and brother is often not the same person/personality officers deal with on the streets.

On the other hand, the officers involved are also experiencing a great blow that could affect them for the rest of their lives.

There are no winners in these incidents.

In fact, everyone involved loses something, if not everything.

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