Monthly Archives: October 2011
I love to see films or television shows where a detective or officer shoots a bad guy and then immediately leaves the scene to carry on with their investigation or other duties. Contrary to these depictions, police shootings are taken very seriously by departments. At a minimum the officer involved in the shooting will be on some form of leave (paid or un-paid). When a police shooting does occur a “special” team of detectives is assigned to investigate the circumstances of that shooting. Until the investigation is complete, the officers involved won’t be handling any other cases.
Critical incident teams (CIT) are known by a number of names but probably the most common slang label is a “shoot” team. These teams investigate deaths of individuals occurring in police custody or by police action. Put simply, if the police may, in any way, have had any responsibility in a death, these teams will investigate the circumstances of that death. These teams routinely investigate police shootings, deaths occurring during arrest control (handcuffing and wrestling a guy to the ground), or while in police custody. This may be either during a short term booking or if a convicted inmate is found dead in their cell. The only deaths which may not “automatically” be investigated by these teams are traffic accidents occurring during a police chase. Certainly there will be an internal investigation to see if the chase policies were followed but that investigation may not be done by a CIT, especially if the police car did not make any physical contact with the suspect vehicle. If the two vehicles did make contact then the CIT may be called.
These teams may be divided into two basic forms; in-house/internal or multi-agency. An internal team is made up of detectives and CSIs from the agency involved in the incident. Usually there are a mix of major case (homicide/robbery/narcotics, etc) detectives and crime lab personnel. All of the investigation and evidence handling is internal. A multi-agency team is composed of major case detectives from a variety of outside agencies within that judicial district but does not include any personnel from the agency involved. For example, I was once on the 18th Judicial District CIT. It was made up of agencies in four Denver metro law enforcement agencies. I worked on cases that did not involve my agency (sheriff’s office). These teams handle the entire investigation (coordinated with the District Attorney and Coroner) to determine if any crimes were committed by law enforcement officers and assist in understanding the cause and manner of death. All evidence is handled by another agency and not by the agency involved in the incident. This creates a layer of insulation from any bias or influence that the public may perceive from police during the investigation. I have written before on some of the challenges that may occur when multiple crimes occur during these CIT investigations.
In your novel you may consider how the formation of these teams might affect the investigation. What happens if an officer from one agency shoots a friend or family member from another agency? How will the public react to a shooting or in-custody death of a “sympathetic” victim? How will the media or community organizers characterize the police response? I’ll have another posting soon on how CSIs process officers involved in shootings and some of the conflicts that can arise. Look for that in a few days. Until then, if you have an officer involved shooting remember that there will be an investigation and one of the two types of teams will likely be involved. You may want to talk to the agency represented in your novel to see what kind of a team they operate.
Well F4F Fans, I have a special treat in store for you. Today I am interviewing Lisa Black; a real-life CSI and New York Times Best Selling Author! Lisa’s latest book Defensive Wounds from Harper Collins is out in stores and a must-read! Lisa brings a unique perspective to crime writing from her day job as a fingerprint examiner and crime scene investigator with the Cape Coral, Florida Police Department. Check out her website for her other titles and a more detailed bio.
F4F: Your first novel Takeover was a top 10 debut mystery of 2009 and received very positive reviews. What was the genesis of your decision to write it and become an author?
LB: I’ve written since grade school, so it wasn’t so much a decision as just part of a process. I had written a number of completed novels before Takeover that were never published. I had a long learning curve.
F4F: Lisa, as a professional forensic scientist you must have a unique perspective of crime and mystery. How much of your writing is inspired by your day job?
LB: The day job inspires me to write about the small details that you won’t see on TV, that you wouldn’t know about if you didn’t actually do these processes in a lab or out in the field or in less-than-ideal circumstances. I want to show people how real life can intrude on scientific pursuits, but that information can be obtained even when circumstances aren’t ideal.
F4F: One of the things I try to do here at F4F is to inform the writer about the realities of forensics as opposed to what they may read or see on television. If you had to single out one or two common mistakes that crime authors make, what would they be?
LB: Authors are, in my opinion, a lot more realistic in their writing than television shows, but then we have more than an hour to let detectives solve the crime and they don’t necessarily have to look sexy every single moment they’re doing it. Authors can be a little less specific if they want to, as well; on TV they generally have to show the character doing whatever, so it will be immediately obvious if it’s inaccurate. Two common mistakes I have read: 1) glib reasons why something can’t be done by the usual authority for such a task, such as finding a missing person or investigating a possible crime, which is really more of a plot device than a mistake. (I suspect we’ve all had to gloss over things here and there to make our stories work.) 2) the common misconception that an average police department a) can search the fingerprints of everyone in the country who’s ever been printed, and b) possess databases of every substance known to man, such as wall paint and body lotion.
F4F: Do you ever run into fans during your job, say in the courtroom?
LB: On the job and in the field, yes. Not in the courtroom yet.
F4F: Has your writing ever created any conflicts with your day job? What I mean is, do you have to establish any boundaries between what you do and what you write?
LB: Well, I don’t write about open cases, obviously, and I try not to give out any information that someone could use to become a better criminal.
LB: Defensive Wounds begins with a murder at a defense attorney convention at a fancy hotel located in Cleveland’s most recognizable landmark—the Terminal Tower, with its 700 foot high observation deck. Forensic Scientist Theresa MacLean’s daughter Rachael is out of college for the summer and working there at the front desk; she’s the first to alert Theresa to the homicide. This little coincidence begins to complicate Theresa’s life as she realizes that her daughter is falling for a handsome coworker—and then finds out how this boy once stood trial for a brutal crime. In fact, the first victim had been his attorney. But the attorney also had a host of enemies, many of whom are also attending this convention. Theresa has the walls closing in from every direction—she is trying to work under the scrutiny of people who will use everything she says or does against her in the court of law, if possible. Her daughter might be falling under the sway of a very dangerous man. Her crime scene is a hotel, littered with the microscopic debris of past guests that may or may not be relevant to the murder. And the killer is not yet finished.
I’ve got a new posting at the Crime Ficiton Collective on my thoughts regarding a “normal” crime scene. I hope you enjoy it!
This is a frequent question from authors so I thought it would be nice to cover it a bit more in detail. The autopsy is a very important part of any death investigation but they are not always performed. In the United States we operate under a Coroner/Medical examiner system in which jurisdiction of that office is usually by the individual counties of the state. Some states have a State Medical Examiner who has jurisdiction over all deaths in that state as well. These offices have jurisdiction over any suspicious or unattended death. An unattended death is one that occurs outside the presence of a medical professional (like inside a hospital). Ultimately the decision to perform an autopsy resides with the Coroner or Medical Examiner unless a court order superseded that decision (which is extremely rare). Practically speaking, if there is even the slightest indication that foul play took place or there is nothing to indicate a cause of death an autopsy is going to be performed in most jurisdictions.
But there are times when an autopsy is not done. most of the time there is a reasonable explanation but as crime authors you’ve probably already guessed that not doing an autopsy can really come back to bite you. First, let me clarify that when I talk about an autopsy I mean a full blown examination. This involves removing and examining the organs and scrutinizing every inch of the body for injuries and a cause of death. This is different than an “external” examination in which the Coroner/Medical Examiner simply checks for evidence of external injury. External exams are typically performed when the death has been attended by medical professionals or when the victim has a lengthy medical history of a terminal illness (such as being in hospice care for advanced cancer). So what factors might lead a Coroner or Medical Examiner to skip the autopsy beside the above examples?
In the best of circumstances (meaning the death was medically foreseeable), when the cause and manner of death are obvious, a family may object to an autopsy on religious or cultural grounds. The Coroner ALWAYS has the authority to conduct an autopsy if they so choose but may decide not to under the above circumstances. Now for the bad news. Actually this is good news for fiction writers. Sometimes a Coroner/Medical examiner may fore go an autopsy for…shall we say…stupid reasons. I have to stress that in my experience this is very rare but it can, and does, happen so you can use conditions like these to fuel your story and add a ton of tension.
Reason #1: As I have previously written, not all Coroners are forensic pathologists. Some don’t have any real medical training at all. In the United States it is an elected position. As such, their decision to skip an autopsy may be influenced by such things as budget constraints. many of these offices have to hire a forensic pathologist to do the autopsy which may cost upwards of $1,000.00. So if the death doesn’t “look” suspicious they may decide to save the cost and skip the procedure.
Reason #2: These elected officials might also skip an autopsy because they feel one is not warranted. For example, if the death appears to be a suicide by intra-oral gunshot then they might say “why do an autopsy when the cause and manner of death is obvious”? or “I don’t need a forensic pathologist to tell me that this woman died in a car accident”. In my opinion this is unwise but it happens. The most obvious concern is that the scene has been staged in some way or the actual cause of death is hidden among other traumatic injuries. For example, what if a person found in a burning car following an accident actually had a gunshot wound to the head which wasn’t obvious because of severe trauma following the accident? What looks like an accident might actually be homicide from road rage or some other motive.
Reason #3: This is extremely rare but again, it happens. The elected official may have a personal interest or motivation to avoid an autopsy. As fiction writers this is the most “juicy” motive of all. On the benign end of the scale the victim may be the child of a friend, business partner, or other associate of the Coroner. Think SIDS death where the parents are known to the Coroner. There may be a motive to write the death off as SIDS rather than investigate any negligence on behalf of the young mother. The Coroner may also have an ideological aversion to certain forms of death such as auto-erotic, SIDS, shaken baby, etc and may choose to declare a death suicide or accident rather than some other cause. The manner of death, such as auto-erotic, may be very embarrassing to the victim’s family or even the community (think religious leader or politician found that way) so the Coroner may avoid an autopsy which may declare the death as such. Under the worst of condition the Coroner or associate may actually be involved in the death (or at least a suspect). Imagine if a Coroner was carrying on an affair with a wife who kills her abusive husband staging it to look like a suicide. Once he goes down that road there may be no coming back. So while that may be rare and extreme, it makes for an engaging story!
Tonight my friend Ross Gardner will be interviewed on BLOG Talk Radio. Follow this link for more informaiton on how to tune in and participate!
When we think about incriminating digital evidence most people imagine computers, smartphones, or digital cameras…but photocopiers? You may not know this but modern photocopiers have memory too. Much like a computer they will receive and store that data until or unless it is written over. In fact, thousands of pages of data can be found on these memory drives. The private security fields have been aware of this for years out of concerns for corporate trade secrets, medical records, and identity theft. A number of news stories have been done on the massive amount of data that can be found on leased and second-hand copiers.
Police have become aware of this data source as well. Let’s face it, not every criminal works in a darkened basement or medieval castle. Most people don’t own their own photocopier so if they choose to employ one in their crimes they’ll probably use one at work or a Kinkos. I’ve seen cases where an abuse ex-husband or boyfriend will make the classic magazine cut-out threatening note. “Smarter” criminals may choose to photocopy that note (so they don’t leave DNA or fingerprints behind from handling the magazines before deciding to use them in a crime) before taping it to the victim’s car, front door, or desk.
It may not even be the bad guy using the copier. Imagine a future murder victim copying incriminating files at work as insurance. Later he/she turns up dead and the original files “disappear” along with the copies. The copies will still exist on the copier and savvy investigators can recover it, just as the bad guy thinks he’s gotten away with the crime!
In many offices or University departments where copiers are shared by numerous people they sometimes require an access code. You can add a layer of intrigue by having that code stolen. for example, maybe a student intern uses a professors access code to make threatening notes to a female student. Police would begin by looking at the professor which could lead you down all kinds of roads, especially with sex crimes. The same type of thing could happen in an office environment as well. If your photocopier gets sold or “retired” before the police get to it then the chase becomes that much more interesting. If you have a way to work a photocopier into your crime keep these examples in mind. Play around with some options and imagine the most bizarre use of a photocopier in the commission of a crime. Good luck!
Below is a very interesting video interview of a researcher in Israel who has documented a genetic mutation that prevents fingerprint patterns from being formed. The mutation is extremely rare (known to occur in only four families worldwide) and not likely to impact criminal investigations but it is interesting nonetheless. The mutation is referred to as adermatoglyphia and affects the SMARCAD1 gene which apparently regulates the formation of fingerprint patterns used for comparison. Criminals have made attempts to alter their fingerprints to avoid detection but this mutation wouldn’t leave the physical scarring that we normally associate with such events. If there were a lack of bifurcations and ending ridges then the prints couldn’t even be entered into AFIS.
Because the mutation is genetic there is the possibility that multiple family members may share the condition. That could prove very interesting for a storyline. Imagine how this condition might help members of a crime family? Imagine further if identical twins shared this mutation? They would have indistinguishable fingerprints and identical DNA!! Talk about a who-dunnit! Even if the police found clues to implicate the family it would be tough to sort out who did what by traditional forensic examinations.
If you write spy thrillers you might consider using this condition for your character as well. Imagine if an intelligence agency actually recruited individuals with this condition. For a sci-fi novel maybe someone clones individuals with this mutation for nefarious operations. You can really have some fun with it. They represent that once in a lifetime case most examiners dream of getting. I think it would make for a fascinating twist in your story.
Since 2003 Crime labs throughout the world have subscribed to a fantastic little magazine called Evidence Technology. Published six times a year it has become a common fixture among the CSI community. Each issue contains wonderful articles covering a variety of crime scene and evidence related topics which are well written and easy to understand. The best part is that the subscription is FREE! You can subscribe on-line and get either a digital or print version. They also publish a newsletter to supplement the magazine. You may find some really valuable contacts on specific topics or professionals in your area. Just don’t forget about me:)!
Full disclosure: I have written several articles for the magazine.
This is really cool technology that has great potential for our military and police, but it also has the potential to one day aid the criminal. The ADAPTIV technology employs interlocking “plates” that use surrounding imaging to project a false “picture” to everyone around it. For example, the camera sensors may take a picture of the environment behind the vehicle and project that image on the opposite side thereby rendering the vehicle ”invisible” even to the naked eye. Right now these imaging plates are pretty distinctive and look like large reptilian scales but as the imaging improves and the scales get smaller it may be indistinguishable from other materials. The great news for fiction writers (especially sci-fi or futuristic mystery) is that you don’t have to wait for the technology to catch up.
Imagine a team of bank robbers who flee the scene in an adaptive camouflage vehicle. The police take chase and are looking for a red colored sedan. With the push of a button the sedan could literally disappear, change shape, or change color. If you really wanted to push the technology envelope imagine if the windows of the vehicle projected the image of an elderly couple or a soccer mom instead of the four heavily armed robbers to any passer-by.
The technology wouldn’t be limited to just vehicles either. You could hide a safe house, room in a warehouse, or even certain items. Imagine the cops busting down the door to a drug house and the bad guys being able to hide their drugs in plain sight. They could also hide weapons, computers, doorways, or any number of incriminating items. The only way a CSI could detect the items would be to disrupt the imaging device. That might be through the use of a low-yield electromagnetic pulse or similar instrument (which I’m not sure even exist but that’s why they call it fiction right?) Play around with some ideas and see where they take you!
Check out my posting on The Crime Fiction Collective Blog regarding character development. It’s a cute little story about an incident this summer that may give you some insight into how members of law enforcement make observations and process details in a given scenario. It may help you recognize that your police characters are going to perceive things differently than the average Joe.