Category Archives: Characters
Okay, this is not really a forensic topic but recently I’ve been hearing some criticism of police dispatchers and since I am friends with several of them I thought I’d take a moment to comment on the position. In The Scent of Fear, one of my second tier characters is a dispatcher and friend of my heroine Sarah Richards. The dispatcher in the Amanda Berry case made national news (perhaps international) after taking the call from the kidnapped victim in Cleveland, Ohio. While I’m not going to share my opinion on that call I will address some of the common complaints levied at dispatchers from some in the public. Folks that don’t listen to dispatchers on a daily basis often believe dispatchers are dispassionate, even disinterested in the events coming through their headsets. While there are certainly unprofessional dispatchers out there, my experience with them has been good. It’s a tough job. You have to handle everything from the absurd (calling 911 to complain that their fast food order is wrong), to the crazy (my dog is an alien sent to spy on me), to the most stressful calls you can imagine like officer (read: friend) down or instructing an eight-year-old on CPR for their dying mother. That’s just a Tuesday in some jurisdictions mind you. It takes a special kind of professional.
I remember one time sitting in my office listening to the police radio when an active shooter began his rampage in his neighborhood. The part I remember most was hearing my friend on the SWAT team being pinned down and taking fire. Bullets were tearing through the wall just above his head and there was nothing I could do but listen. I prayed to hear his voice again through the static and thankfully he came out of it all uninjured. The other thing I remembered was how calm the dispatcher was in relaying the information to other responders. She was also his friend and I suspect she felt many of the emotions I did. She was just better at handling them than I was. If you think about it; a dispatcher that looses it over a stressful call wouldn’t be very helpful to the officers that need him or her to multi-task the various tasks they need to do in order to support patrol operations. What sounds to some like a lack of concern or recognition of the severity of the situation is often just the dispatcher being the professional they’re required to be.
Another common complaint I see if that the dispatcher asks too many questions. “Shut up and send the officers!” “Quit asking so many stupid questions!” Have you ever thought that while listening to a radio dispatch on the news? The truth is that dispatchers can handle multiple duties at once. They can alert and dispatch officers over their mobile data stations (computers) while talking to the victim on the phone. Other dispatchers in the call center can also monitor the call and may be dispatching additional units, fire, ambulance, etc. They just aren’t talking on the same line so you never hear that portion of the call. Handling such calls takes concentration but that’s what they are trained to do. They have to go through a selection process in the same way officers do and the ones that can’t handle stressful multi-tasking often don’t get the job.
The video below is a nice tribute to one of the most thankless jobs in law enforcement. If you are writing a dispatch character you might want to consider how their job affects their personality. How they handle stress and how they communicate with those around them. Dispatchers can form a tight bond with the officers they work with and may know those officers better than the watch commander.
The art of observation is critical to every CSI. We have to be able to see things that others can not. Contrary to popular opinion we don’t always “see” everything that we see. To steal an example from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; close your eyes and say out loud how many steps it takes to get from your bedroom door to your kitchen. Easy right? I mean, you probably walk that route several times a day don’t you? Why would you have trouble describing the number of steps it takes? It’s the difference between “seeing” and “observing”. We may see things but we may not observe them.
As authors, we have to describe scenes for our readers. We have to do it in such a way that they feel a part of the scene. This is easier when we feel a part of it ourselves. I’m sure you’d agree that your writing is much better when you’re describing a place you’ve actually visited. But even if you’re familiar with the setting…how well do you really know it? Here is a simple exercise to help you develop your skills of observation. The more you practice such exercises the more vivid and detailed your scene writing will likely become.
Where ever you are right now, get a sheet of paper and a pen. Pick a room on the other side of your home (or your office). Imagine yourself standing in the doorway facing into the space. Now I want you to describe the room. Start on your left and begin writing down everything I would see if I were standing where you are. Spare no detail. Give yourself ten minutes to complete the task. Then try to draw a “birds-eye” diagram of the furniture in that space. When you’re done, take the notes and diagram to the room and see how you did. Did you capture all the detail? The colors…the sounds…the smells?
If you live in a dorm room or one bedroom apartment you can try something a little different. Think of a picture in your place of employment or relatives house. Got it? Now describe it and draw it. What are the colors? How many elements (people, animals, buildings, etc.) are in it? What color is the mat board? How about the frame? Where is it on the wall?
I’m not suggesting that CSIs have photographic memories. We don’t observe everything either but, we develop our skills of observation to “see” more than the average person. I’m betting that, as authors, you see more than you think; more than most others. Exercises like this are what we use to train new CSIs to observe details others may miss. I hope that you’ll find it an interesting first step in enhancing your observation skills.
Today I was invited to guest blog at Criminal Lines about keeping the CSI character “in character”. Stop by and check out her BLOG and other great articles!
Dr. Jane Bock is a forensic botanist and researcher from Colorado affiliated with a number of professional organizations. She has been conducting field research for over four decades and has received numerous awards including the Ralph W. Schreiber conservation award and Hazel Barnes Prize. I first met Dr. Bock while working in NecroSearch International. She has worked numerous murder cases across the nation and is very approachable for those seeking additional information. The field of forensic botany is fascinating. From looking at last meal evidence to disturbances from burial, plant material can provide great insight to an investigation. If you’ve never thought of including botanical evidence in one of your novels you might reconsider after reading this interview. Her new book Handbook of Forensic Botany will be released this year.
F4F: Historically, how long have plants been used in forensic investigations?
BOCK: Forensic botany reaches far back in Western history. Plato, in his writing (Phaedo 399 BCE), describes the suicide of his teacher, Socrates, in detail. Socrates chose to commit suicide by imbibing poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). Plato’s description of Socrates’ symptoms fits exactly the pattern of poison hemlock poisoning today in the US and Europe. Forensic botany became ‘scientific’ with the inventions of the printing press (1440 AD) and the light microscope lenses (1590 AD). Using a microscopic lens, Robert Hooke described the cellular nature of cork cells, later published in his book, Micrographia. The earliest books describing plant cell types followed shortly. Forensic botany came of age in the US in 1934 when botanical evidence was used to solve the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby boy.
Botanical evidence in courts today is accepted readily through both Frye and Dauburt examinations provided the witness shows competence in botanical knowledge. My cases have involved knowledge from three subdivisions of botany: plant anatomy, plant taxonomy, and plant ecology.
F4F: How are plants used in last meal evidence analysis?
BOCK: Dr. David O. Norris and I fostered the identification of food plant cells in criminal investigations and trials. Plant cells usually are enclosed in cellulose walls. These complex carbohydrate walls are virtually indestructible. They pass through the human digestive tract unchanged in their sizes and shapes. It does not matter if the plant was consumed raw, canned, frozen or cooked. Each food plant has cells that are distinctive in size and shape. We commonly examine plant cells from stomach contents. There is a rough time table for how long each stage of the human digestive process takes, and the time for stomach digestion usually is within a couple hours of consumption, then the material passes to the small intestine. This can be helpful in some homicides in estimating the time of death.
Identifying food plant cells from the digestive tract and feces of a homicide victim may link the victim to a certain place where a meal was taken and may link a suspect’s presence to that same place. Two recent cases involved the plant foods found in the stomach contents of people whose exact diets were known (hospital and prison). When the records of the day’s meals were compared with stomach contents, we learned which meal was the victim’s last even though a suspect claimed the person had been killed after a later meal.
F4F: What are the most common types of analysis you’re asked to conduct for law enforcement?
BOCK: Plant Taxonomy: assigning the correct scientific plant name to a plant or plant fragment. Such identification can link a victim to a suspect through plant fragments found in clothes or vehicles. Such evidence also can show a place where a victim and/or suspect visited. what residences These cases are relatively common. Plant Ecology: the relationship between plants and their environments. Here, you test ideas about where plant materials originated. In a case, a truck contained fragments from a mountain setting, but the trucker claimed the vehicle never had left the prairie. This along with other evidence led to a murder conviction.
F4F: Some of the readers may be unaware of the use of pollen, seeds, and diatoms in forensic investigations. Can you talk a little about how they may be used to link a suspect to a crime scene?
BOCK: Most plants are made up of stems, roots, and leaves, plus reproductive parts (flower parts and seeds). These all have cellulose cell walls. However, other organisms have cell walls comprised of other substances. These plant structures can fall into the forensic botanist’s purview, and include pollen, spores, and certain microorganisms. The presence of pollen in association with a cold case homicide can suggest a season when a crime took place because the shedding of pollen is highly seasonal. Diatoms have cell walls of silica and are virtually universal in all bodies of water from mud puddles to oceans. However, species distribution and relative abundances among species have given strong evidence of the source the water in a case. Here, the water in the victim’s lungs indicated that he had been in a body of water that was distinctive from the location described by the suspect.
F4F: You’ve been involved with a number of high profile murder cases over the years. Is there any one case involving plant evidence that really stands out to you and why?
BOCK: High profile cases can be difficult if the media have publicized widely their decision about guilt. For example, in the defense for the Casey Anthony case, making trips to the courthouse involved running a gauntlet of reporters and other supporters of a guilty verdict yelling my name. Also, e-mail threats for the expert if you are involved with the ‘unpopular’ side. The most renowned high profile murder case I’ve worked occurred over 10 years ago and has not been brought to trial. Therefore, it is an ongoing case and my evidence cannot be discussed here. This continues to weigh heavily on me because of what my partner and I know from our evidence. In a recent cold case in Pennsylvania where the victim was an 80-year old woman, we determined the contents her last meal. It had served as the medium for the poison that killed her. We supplied a deposition and this led to a confession of the persons who killed her. Had it gone to trial it would have been very high profile.
F4F: What’s on the horizon in forensic botany? Are there new technologies that are poised to open areas of inquiry that were previously unknown?
BOCK: A worrisome aspect of this field is that it is underutilized and under represented. The approaches described above are simple, inexpensive, and readily accepted in courts. Many more people with forensic interests must train themselves in botany. DNA can be useful in forensic botany, but our lab does not deal with it. It is not especially useful in plant identifications because there are at least 300,000 plant species., and most of their DNA patterns are not known. What DNA can do is link plant fragments from a single plant to a suspect to a victim, to a vehicle, to a place. This works well. DNA analysis is being streamlined and will become more so. Already some kits are showing up so that a major laboratory may not be required.
I am happy to discuss forensic botany with interested individuals, and also to point them to appropriate scientific literature.
This is a common question CSIs must address with each crime scene. Why this house? Why this victim? Why me? (just kidding!) We don’t always figure it out but understanding what may have attracted the criminal may provide insight into the type of criminal we’re looking for. Of course, each crime is different. The location may be incidental to the victim but, for the sake of this discussion, let’s just focus on location. To answer this question I generally begin by breaking down my options into two categories; Intelligence and Opportunity.
Intelligence doesn’t relate to IQ. By Intelligence I mean information. This may tie in to what is stolen. I remember a residential burglary once where the owners reportedly had several thousand dollars in cash taken. When I asked where the money had been kept the man took me to the master closet and showed me an older sport jacket (among dozens) that he used to stash the cash in. There were no windows and so it was immediately obvious that whoever had stolen the money knew it was there. Nothing else was disturbed and the odds of a burglar stumbling on the right jacket were astronomical! Turns out his teenager had disclosed (bragged about) the information to some “friends” at school. The point is that they knew what they were looking for and where. The same may be true for drugs, guns, counterfeit money, etc. If your victims are professional criminals (sometimes they do call the cops) they will be less than truthful about what was really stolen. They just want the CSIs to figure out who committed the crime. Criminal locations targeted may include rival drug houses, prostitution rings, money launderers, etc.
Is the home adjacent to a greenbelt or park and lacking blinds or curtains? Can the burglar easily “case” the house at night with the lights on? Does the victim have a predictable routine or habit that is easily observed? Is this the only house on the block without an alarm sign in the front yard? Are they the only ones without a large dog? What makes this house or business more appealing than the one next door? Of course, businesses are somewhat different than homes. They type of business may have everything to do with selection. A gas station or pawn shop is more tempting to a robber than a dental practice. Unless, of course, the dental office is a front!
Opportunity is another factor to consider. Most burglars don’t like to enter occupied structures. So they may be on the lookout for evidence of vacancy. Are there newspapers piled up outside? Solicitor advertisements on the door? Have the trash cans been left on the curb when all the other neighbors have brought them in? These are all passive indicators that no one is home. Sometimes criminals will enter a home. This is more tempting when access is easy such as when the garage door is left open. Some people will leave ground floor windows open as well which are very easy to bypass. Some criminals are even bold enough to ring the doorbell. If no one answers (and they don’t hear a dog) they just go around to a secluded spot and force entry.
So why is any of this important to you as an author? Because readers want to understand the “why” of the scene. Why this house? Why this window? Why this victim? It provides a reasonable explanation to the reader for the actions and motives of the characters. So, knowing how to describe and set up the revelation may bring your reader into a deeper appreciation of the scene. This information can be given in any viewpoint, dialog, or observation of the character. The “how” is not nearly as important as the “why”. So when you’re developing a scene try not to just toss out random elements. Ask yourself why your criminal decided on this particular location and then reveal that in some way to the reader. I guarantee you they are dying to know!
Today I wanted to share an interview with a local Colorado author and cold case researcher. Silvia Pettem is a Boulder-based author and historical researcher. Beginning in 2003 (after a decades-long career in research and writing), she combined old-fashioned detective work with the power of the Internet while partnering with her local sheriff and with forensic experts of the Vidocq Society to determine the identity of a murder victim from 1954. She chronicled their work in Someone’s Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe. Now, as a volunteer in the Detectives Section of the Boulder Police Department, as well as a NamUs instructor and an associate member of the Vidocq Society, Pettem has expanded her expertise in her latest book––Cold Case Research: Resources for Unidentified, Missing, and Cold Homicide Cases.
F4F: Behind the Badge was an excellent history of the Boulder (CO) Police Department for the last 125 years. Writers can find it difficult to gain the trust of law enforcement but you seemed to have great access. What was your fondest memory of that project?
SP: What I enjoyed the most was meeting the people and learning how the department worked, literally “behind the badge.”
F4F: In Someone’s Daughter you delved into an unsolved “cold” murder case in Boulder county. In the end, your work led to the identity of the victim previously known as Jane Doe. Tell the readers of F4F a little about the victim and how she died.
SP: Dorothy Gay Howard was only 18, but she had already been married, then divorced, and then remarried when she fled Phoenix AZ in the fall of 1953. She may have hitch-hiked or taken a bus to Denver. Her aunt lived there, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, where Harvey Glatman (later executed for murder) trolled for victims to sexually assault. The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office and I believe that Howard may have been the first victim he killed.
F4F: As a writer, what were some of the challenges you faced when researching this book and how did you overcome them?
SP: Lack of access to the case file and lack of communication with detectives. I finally gave them information (from my research) that they couldn’t ignore.
F4F: Your latest book Cold Case Research really gets at the marrow of cold homicides. What do you feel are the greatest challenges facing law enforcement in cold case investigations?
SP: LE’s greatest challenges are lack of time and lack of money. In Cold Case Research, I explain how to obtain free forensic services through NamUs, get pro bono help through review teams, make the most of search engines and databases, and use of volunteers. I’ve also found that the older investigators aren’t especially internet-savvy, and the younger ones know little about accessing historical newspapers and courthouse records––so I’ve tried to bring in resources from both generations to bridge that gap.
F4F: How do you see the future of cold case homicide investigations? Is there room for a bigger role from civilian resources?
SP: I’m optimistic, especially when agencies recognize the need for cold case units, even if they consist of only one dedicated investigator. As to civilian resources (and I’m one at the Boulder Police Department), I think more agencies need to put them to work in order to free up time for investigators to do their jobs. Of course the volunteers need to be vetted and sign confidentiality statements. Sometimes, all that’s needed is a fresh pair of eyes.
F4F: Can you tell us about any new projects you are working on?
SP: I’m currently busy with speaking engagements––on cold case research––at International Association for Identification conferences around the country.
As authors, using acronyms gives a little realism to your character dialog and shows that you’ve done some basic research into the forensics profession. So I thought I would define a few of the more common acronyms used by CSIs. Don’t be shy about using these in your novel.
- SLR = Single Lens Reflex. The SLR is a type of camera most CSIs use. These cameras have a detachable lens that can be separated from the body. This is different than the small point and shoot cameras popular with most people.
- ABFO = American Board of Forensic Odontology. A very common photographic scale (ruler) is called an ABFO scale. It is “L” shaped with 6″ arms.
- UV = Ultraviolet. Many body fluids like semen, saliva, and urine will fluoresce under UV light and photographed even if they are invisible to the naked eye.
- IR = Infra-red. Infra-red light is used to detect and photograph various forms of secret writing, different inks used on the same document (like a check where someone adds extra zeros to the cash out amount), and even drugs.
- ALS = Alternate Light Source is a device using both ultra-violet and infrared light to discover evidence.
- UAV = Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. UAVs (also called drones) are becoming more popular with law enforcement agencies as a platform for taking aerial photographs and video. Basically they are sophisticated remote controlled aircraft with camera equipment that can be controlled from a ground based pilot.
- ACE-V = Analysis, Comparison, Evaluation, and Verification. This is the methodology used by fingerprint examiners to compare latent crime scene fingerprints to inked fingerprints on an arrest card.
- AFIS = Automated Fingerprint Identification System. This is a ubiquitous term used to describe a variety of computer databases that store and search fingerprint images. Don’t confuse with AFIX Tracker which is a specific brand of AFIS type computer system.
- I-AFIS = Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. This is the national fingerprint database operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that can be accessed by state and local law enforcement agencies.
- CSI = Crime Scene Investigator
- SOCO = Scenes of Crime Officer is the term for a CSI in England
- FMJ = Full metal jacket
- HP = Hollow Point
- DNA = Deoxyribonucleic Acid; our genetic building blocks
- STR = Short Tandem Repeat is a type of modern forensic DNA testing of specific loci on two or more samples.
- RFLP = Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism refers to differences between homologous DNA sequences and is an older testing procedure.
- CODIS = Combined DNA Index System is a computerized database of DNA profiles used in criminal investigations (similar to AFIS).
- BAC = Blood alcohol content.
- LMG = Leucomalachite green is a blood reagent with a strong odor that turns the latent bloodstain a green color. It is not commonly used today.
- LCV = Lueco-crystal Violet is a blood reagent that turns bloodstains a dark blue/purple color.
- GCMS = Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer is a device used to identify chemical compounds in unknown samples like illicit drugs. It is a great instrument to use with mixed samples or for general screening but it will totally consume the sample.
- LCMS = Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry is another method of drug testing that is useful in complex mixtures of samples.
- FTIR = Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy is a devices used to test a liquid, gas, or solid substance to identify it. It is the preferred method if you want to save the sample or if you need to identify an isomer.
- GHB = Gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid is a common date rape drug that is both colorless and odorless. It is commonly slipped into victim’s drinks.
- SEM = Scanning Electron Microscope is a device using electrons rather than light to visualize very small evidence about 250 times greater than the typical light microscope.
Professional Forensic Organizations:
- IAI = International Association for Identification
- AAFS = American Academy of Forensic Sciences
- ACSR = Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction
- IABPA = International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts
- RMABPA = Rocky Mountain Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts
- SWG = Scientific working group (several groups based on field of study like SWGTREAD, SWGSTAIN, SWGGUN, and SWGFAST)
Don’t forget that a lot of agencies have acronyms like the FBI, DEA, BATFE, etc. Also, I have left out a number of acronyms that deal with accreditation and safety as I can’t imagine you wanting to use them in dialog (unless you want your readers to fall asleep in which case let me know!)
This will be the first in a series of posts on how CSIs respond to and investigate crime scenes. I hope that these posts will give you a little insight to the process which may help you in developing scenes and dialog in your novel. I’ll be speaking exclusively about CSIs who are on-call as opposed to those working in shifts. Obviously, if your character works a shift (like graves) they are already in uniform or in their vehicle or office and can respond accordingly. But, what about the CSIs who get called out after hours? This is where it can get a little interesting. During my career I worked banker hours during the day and was on-call at night and on weekends. Depending on the size of the lab you may be on-call as much as every other week or once every six or eight weeks. Usually you’re on call one week at a time. In some labs you may also be on “back up” the week before you go on-call which means you’re the number two person called if something major happens or the primary criminalist is already on a call out.
Most agencies will give you an on-call vehicle and some even supply your phone. You are required to drive this vehicle everywhere you go while on-call, even on personal errands like grocery shopping or going out to eat. Of course, when the call comes you have to finish up what you’re doing and respond to the crime scene. This adds a little inconvenience to your life in that you usually have to driver separately from your family. So if you and your spouse go out for dinner you need to drive separately. Same thing with going to the kids soccer game, Thanksgiving dinner, or anything else you might do. You can’t take your spouse or kids to a crime scene because you don’t know how long you’ll be tied up (days in extreme cases). Obviously, you have to stay somewhat close to home when on call. You can’t go camping for the weekend or do anything that would prevent you from responding in a reasonable amount of time. Most agencies I know of require you to be en route to a scene within thirty minutes of a call and on scene in about an hour.
Different agencies have different policies on who actually can call out a CSI. Most of the time this is restricted to the Sergeant rank or above. Since CSIs are a finite resource agencies don’t want them called out on every little thing so a higher ranked individual will evaluate the request to see if a CSI is really needed. In some agencies only the investigations supervisors can call out the lab and patrol officers must make their request through them. Either way, the CSI usually gets the call from either the ranking officer, detective, or in most cases dispatch. Regardless, when the call comes in you have to take down pertinent information about the crime. Every CSI will have a notebook and their phone on the nightstand or in their vehicle. Here are some of the basic things we might have to note as the call comes in.
- Time and date of the call out
- Who notified you
- The crime scene location (address)
- Initial details about the crime including secondary scenes (this information may be incomplete or incorrect depending on the source)
- Time and place of your departure to the crime scene (this could be your residence, restaurant, or some other location)
- Finally, time of arrival on scene.
Your departures and arrivals are usually done via police radio so there is a record. Every criminalist will be assigned a call sign number. Sometimes this is an arbitrary employee number, vehicle number, or just your name. Here is a hypothetical radio exchange between a CSI and dispatch. When you talk to dispatch you typically only reference yourself; you don’t have to say “dispatch”. There are some websites that actually let you listen in to live police radio traffic in your area so you may want to do a web search for your local police or sheriff followed by “police radio” and see what comes up.
Dispatch: “651 go ahead”
CSI: “Show me en route to 1234 4th street from my residence”
Dispatch: “Copy 2147″ (2147 would be 9:47 pm in military time)
Then when you arrive on scene you might say…
CSI: “651 on scene”
Dispatch: “2231″ (meaning your arrival is acknowledged at 10:31pm)
There is no need to acknowledge what scene you are arriving at because you already made that clear in the initial call. If you needed to talk to an officer or detective while en route you would contact them on the radio using their call sign followed by yours. For example you might say “Charlie 23, 651″. This means “hey guy named Charlie 23 this is me (651) and I want to talk to you.
Anyone who knows me knows that I never pass up an opportunity to make fun of the FBI. Those same folks also know that I have a tremendous amount of respect for the agency. One of my best friends is a Special Agent and despite the fact that he is a genius, I relentlessly poke fun at him anyway. The FBI is prominently featured in many novels, movies, and television news segments. That’s not too surprising given the agency has a well known reputation and it’s hard to miss them on the evening news (thanks to their snazzy windbreakers emblazoned with their initials). But I have encountered a number of authors who don’t fully understand the role of the FBI in criminal investigations. Recently, an author friend had me read a scene they were working on in which the FBI was investigating an officer involved shooting. They were under the impression that the FBI investigated all officer involved shootings. So I thought it might be helpful to discuss when the FBI is actually involved in a case. Keep in mind that just because the FBI has jurisdiction in a crime doesn’t necessarily mean they will work the investigation. More on that in a bit.
To understand when the FBI is called in you need to understand a little about jurisdiction. Keep in mind that this issue can get very complicated so I’ll try to keep this as simple as possible. The FBI is a Federal agency within the United States of America. I find it easiest to think of jurisdiction in two broad categories; property (location) and statutes (laws). The FBI has jurisdiction on federal properties like buildings, federal public lands (BLM, forrest, National Parks), and Indian Reservations (more on Indian Reservations in a later post). Also included are “special” jurisdictions that don’t fit into a “normal” definition. These include places like airplanes crossing over various states (you don’t have to prove which state airspace the crime occurred in), cruise ships, and potentially even the Space Shuttle (before the program was eliminated that is). In theory, any felony and many misdemeanors on these properties could (would) be investigated by the FBI. There are two big exceptions however. If another Federal law enforcement agency has primary jurisdiction or mission mandates over the crime. For example, the post office has its own branch that investigates mail fraud. Customs investigates smuggling and the Secret Service investigates counterfeiting and major fraud. Then there are certain crimes that may involve multiple agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Other federal reservations that are unique are military bases. See my interviews with an ARMY CID agent or NCIS Agent to get a better idea of those jurisdictions.
The second category to consider is the statute. The United States is a Federalist system comprised of Federal, state, and local laws. The FBI is a federal agency and primarily concerns itself with crimes defined under federal statutes. They won’t be responding to the average stolen vehicle. So some of the more common crimes you may be familiar with are bank robbery (FDIC insured banks), kidnapping, public corruption, racketeering and organized crime, etc. Additionally, the FBI also deals with acts of terrorism, counter-terrorism, and a few other things I won’t mention.These activities have risen dramatically since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York City. As more and more agents are preoccupied with those important tasks, local agencies are picking up the slack by handling a larger portion of things like bank robberies and kidnappings (these crimes are also against state and local law).
As if that wasn’t complicated enough the FBI can be called for assistance on any major crime. Usually these are mass murders or serial murders that may or may not cross state boundaries. It is important to recognize however that the FBI must be invited into the case by the local agency unless there is a clear violation of federal law (such as an act of terrorism). The FBI can’t just storm onto any old homicide and take over just because they want to. More importantly, the FBI doesn’t have a dispatch center like you might find in a police department. 911 calls don’t go to the FBI switchboard and FBI agents aren’t driving around “on patrol” waiting for a radio call. Every agent I know is backlogged with major cases and doesn’t have time to investigate local crimes even if they wanted to (and they don’t). Besides, that’s what the local police are for.
So if you plan to have the FBI investigating crimes in your novel you need to make sure that one of the following occurs. They are invited in on something major, the crime is covered under federal statutes, and that it occurs on some kind of federal property. Now, the FBI does provide a tremendous amount of mutual aid to state and local authorities via units like their crime lab, Behavioral Analysis, and Hostage Rescue to name a few but, they don’t “take over” the investigation in the process. If you are writing a typical crime novel then the FBI characters will probably be acting in these capacities (like profiling a serial killer) and not as the lead agency. Don’t be afraid to insert FBI characters, just know it may be a supporting role. Keep in mind that this is a very basic explanation of when the FBI may respond to investigations. In reality, circumstances may dictate exceptions to the rule. If you are working on a specific scene post a question and I’ll try to clarify based on your specifics.