Police officers become very good at dealing with drunks, making traffic stops, and investigating domestic disputes because we frequently handle these calls. Do something enough times, and you are probably going to learn how to do it in a fairly efficient manner with few mistakes.
A murder investigation is arguably one of the most important kinds of cases a police officer will investigate. Thankfully, most of us don’t get a lot of practice at them. This means that the one case that is most likely to generate intense media interest and put you on the witness stand, you are unlikely to have much experience in working.
So, here are a few tips to keep in mind when you respond to a homicide.
First – Know Your SOP. If you follow your department’s standard operating procedure you will avoid any problems with administration and the investigators. Most departments have a pretty good SOP, so following it will keep you out of trouble on the witness stand also.
Second – Protection of Life Is Paramount! Each scene is different, but saving lives is universal. Protect the scene as best you can, but life saving actions always take priority. Morally, legally, and ethically…if you have to choose between trying to save a life and trying to preserve evidence, always try to save the life.
Third – Get Enough Help. You are going to need a lot of manpower at most homicide scenes to secure the location and identify witnesses. You can’t do it all by yourself.
Fourth – Identify the Crime Scene and Secure It. The evidence at the crime scene is not permanent. Things can move, liquids can evaporate, evidence can be stepped on, and perhaps even worse, new things can be introduced into the scene. Contamination of a crime scene can sink the case before it ever gets to court. Also, be aware of how large your crime scene needs to be. Always secure the largest area that may reasonably be involved. Investigators can shrink the size of the scene, if appropriate.
Fifth – Detain and Separate Witnesses. Chances are, you will not interview many witnesses. However, you should detain anyone on scene, and separate them so their memories and stories are not influenced by others. Move them outside of the crime scene and babysit them until detectives get on scene and decide how they want to handle interviews.
Sixth – Written Notes. Write down everything you did, saw, smelled, heard, touched, etc. Make sure someone is running a detailed log of who came into the crime scene. You will omit important information if you wait until later to write down your observations.
Talking with your investigators prior to ever responding to a homicide will give you a great deal of insight into what expectations they have.