Supervision and Management
How to be an Effective Homicide Commander

By Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M.P.S.
Homicide and Forensic Consultant

©2011 Vernon J. Geberth, Practical Homicide Investigation
Originally published by Law & Order Magazine, Vol. 59 No. 11 November, 2011under the title, "Homicide Unit and Its Commander"
This PHI version of the Article has been Expanded for Research and Clarity.

"Not everyone, who is in police service, has the temperament, personality, perseverance or skills to be an effective Homicide Squad Commander. The supervision and management of an investigative unit, specifically as a Homicide Squad Commander requires a drastically different approach than the strict patrol-oriented paramilitary model, which does not allow for any input from the subordinates or variations at the point of execution."


The role of the supervisor varies according to specific assignments. There are many different positions, ranks and assignments within major police agencies. The majority of police officials are involved in uniform or special assignment details, which follow a department’s day-to-day supervisor to subordinate rank operations protocol. There are rules and procedures as well as department directives dictating exactly what is required for any specific event.

The supervision of mature men and women, who have years of practical investigative experience, requires a specific type of command leadership, that recognizes the professional expertise and value of the members as well as the administrative need for the efficient management and coordination of the members activities.

Supervising the Homicide Investigation [1]

The supervision and management function requires the supervisor to actively participate in the investigation. This does not mean "playing detective" and/or jumping into the operational aspects, such as interrogation of suspects, searching the crime scene, collecting and/or handling evidence, interviewing prospective witnesses, etc.

Active participation means sharing an interest in the investigation intelligently directing activities and utilizing the investigative critiques to establish priorities properly. In addition, active participation enables the supervisor to assess the case and provide the necessary resources to the members of the squad so that they may effectively investigate the case.

The supervisor of homicide should ideally have a homicide or an investigative background as experience is a prime asset to appreciate and understand the dynamics of the investigative function. This does not mean that a supervisor who lacks a homicide or investigative background cannot effectively supervise investigations. However, it does suggest that there is a need for learning the investigative processes involved. Even for the experienced supervisor, managing investigations is an on-going educational process.

Remember, you're never too smart to learn.

As I travel across the country and conduct my "Practical Homicide Investigation® classes, I am always pleasantly surprised to hear of some new technique or I am provided a unique case, which I can share with others. I'm happy for the learning experience and feel that one can always learn something new.

Professional Skills

Homicide investigation requires specialized skills and training. Detectives should have an above average intelligence to absorb the many details that emerge in a murder investigation and be well-read, knowledgeable of current events and open minded. The homicide investigator should learn to look at each case as a form of continuing education. As they become involved in additional investigations they will be able to build a base of experience allowing them to make a determination of whether or not something is consistent or inconsistent and they must be alert to new developments within the profession and be able to apply this to the current case.

In addition to proficiently operating special pieces of equipment, the detectives are required to learn effective interview and interrogation techniques, crime scene processing, evidence handling, report writing, documentation as well as the most effective and proper court presentation of findings.

Practically speaking, it takes at least one year for an officer to become somewhat familiar with investigation procedures as well as the investigative forms and the paperwork required for both the departments and the criminal justice system and approximately two years before the officer effectively contributes to the operation. Time and experience are the best resources for the continuing education necessary in developing a proficient investigator.

The investigation begins with a careful and intelligent examination of the crime scene and the suspect. This means that you don't contaminate your own crime scene and you have the intelligence to realize that the suspect is an extension of the scene. The detective must also recognize that anything and everything may constitute a piece of evidence. The detective evaluates these "bits-and-pieces" of evidence coupled with the preliminary information provided by the reporting witness and/or others looking for elements of consistency. These bits and pieces may be in the form of trace evidence found at the scene, statements taken from suspects, direct eyewitness accounts, or autopsy results. There may be an eyewitness, from which you must glean a detailed and thorough account before their memory fades or is influenced by what is going on around them. This includes police activity and other potential witnesses talking to one another.

Interview and Interrogation

If you have a possible suspect in custody, you will have to conduct an intelligent interrogation of the suspect, which requires that Miranda Rights be provided to this suspect so that the information you obtain will have probative value. This is best undertaken at the station house where you will have the necessary facilities to conduct this crucial phase of the investigation. If the suspect is cooperative have the detectives take a preliminary statement at the scene, which can be used to assist the authorities in the recovery of evidence.

The commander should assure that absolutely no one interfere or interrupt this process. In fact, most professional officers know that you never interrupt an interrogation unless there's an emergency. In my opinion, that would be "A Fire in the Station House." The supervisor and/or commander should assure that the interview and interrogation aspect is conducted to it's the ultimate conclusion.

I oftentimes hear from folks in my class about inappropriate command interference in this phase of the investigation. It is usually done by inexperienced supervisors or a micro managers, who think they can do a better job. An excellent example of inappropriate command interference is presented in the book, "Perfect Beauty," a case involving a love triangle and an execution-style murder. Detectives in this case had worked for months on this case. The suspect had grown cockier during the investigation and had actually agreed to come to the station house for an interview. The detectives allowed the suspect to tell his story and then confronted him about his false alibis. "The interrogation had gone as planned. All they had to do now was allow the suspect to confess. The detective had the suspect ready to confess, the suspect's head was bowed and he asked the detective, 'What's going to happen to me?' As the suspect opened his mouth to speak, a loud pounding noise snapped him out of his stupor. The female captain, who had never been in investigations, began knocking and then pounding on the door as if there was an emergency outside. The detectives tried to ignore the banging and continued. At this point the suspect looked as if he would cry as he seemed to realize that it was over and would confess. The female captain then began banging even louder."

So why did this captain commit such an error and interfere with the interrogation?

The captain had been listening in on the interrogation. She felt that the detectives had screwed up the interview by allowing the suspect to lie to them. She thought she could do a better job by confronting the suspect and calling him a liar. The result: The suspect asked for his lawyer.

The Reality of the Interrogation

Many times you have to elicit from the suspect an account of what actually took place and then compare this information to the facts that you have developed and discovered during the initial inquiry. As long as you can get the suspect to talk you are ahead of the game. It doesn't matter if he lies or "plays games." If you listen carefully (and sometimes we find it hard to listen), you may be fortunate enough to glean some piece of evidence you would have missed. "Remember: The next best thing to a confession is a provable lie".

An offender may attempt to minimize his responsibility by blaming the victim. Or, he may suggest that the victim encouraged the behavior. Or he may state that the victim was a willing participant in the event. The offender will then construct an elaborate alibi or story that has "kernels of truth" interspersed into his account of the event.

These "kernels of truth" seemingly explain some components of the event and some of the evidence that the authorities have uncovered. However, when placed in context, the statement doesn't ring true in its entirety.

In order to maintain the dialogue the investigator should allow the suspect's subterfuge to gain some admissions that can be focused on in subsequent interrogations.

The Reality of Investigative Expertise

Homicide Investigators and Detectives experience a whole different aspect of law enforcement as they gain access to agencies and operations outside the purview of their own police departments. They learn to interact with both the private and public sectors and become acquainted with different personalities and various non-police scenarios in their endeavor to obtain information critical to the case. Many times they have to learn to "Think-Outside-the-Box" in order to get the job done. This is where the police manager with the anal personality gets stressed.

I always advise people who attend my classes to make sure that they make friends and exchange contact information so they can be more effective investigators. Needless to say, detectives always access information as soon as possible from multiple sources both within and outside the department. "Remember: Information is the lifeblood of an investigation."

I remember a case where an inexperienced commander, who had transferred into investigations from an administrative position in Employee Management, was threatening his detectives with charges because they had contacted an outside agency direct instead of going through department channels. In his former position, everything had to be documented on paper and sent up the chain of command before any action could be taken. Needless to say, his assignment as a commander of investigations was a disaster.

Many major case investigations are successfully completed by a combination of brainstorming, intuition and educated guesswork. The expertise developed by detectives is based upon extensive experience in the field and a familiarity with a large number of cases. Experienced detectives, who have recognized a particular modus operandi from a case in the past or a perpetrator's distinctive signature, have solved innumerable cases. It's this experience coupled with knowledge and continuity within the detective division, which assures successful investigations and that crimes will be solved. And, consequently instills the confidence of the community in their police.

In order for personnel to attain this level of expertise they must have years and years of practical experience coupled with formal education, training schools and seminars. It is a very fine blend of "Practice and Theory" that enables investigators to function as professionals and the professional homicide detective must be willing to work as a team player who engenders cooperation by his or her own conduct and behavior.

The Homicide Squad Commander

A Homicide Squad is only as good as its unit commander in attaining success. The commanding officer must be able to instill in his troops a sense of esprit de corps and encourage interest and enthusiasm in the unit. At the same time the commander must assure that proper and appropriate discipline and deportment in the unit is maintained.

When Homicide Squad Commanders have been afforded the duty of running their command and know that they have the freedom to assign, discipline, transfer and select their personnel as needed, they will be more effective and will gladly and fully accept every responsibility both for himself and his troops. Accepting responsibility for their actions and what the squad members do in accordance with their duties builds confidence and solidifies leadership. More importantly your troops know they can rely on you to support them.

In addition to everything else, the Squad Commander acts as a buffer between headquarters and the command. Everything should flow through the commanding officers, who in turn report back to their commanders.

Sources of Power [3]

John Bizzack wrote an excellent book entitled, "No Nonsense Leadership." One of the chapters, "Issues of Power" described the difference between supervisors who perform with Power Source 1 and Power Source 2.

As a commander you have sources of power to command. Power Source 1, which granted to you by the nature of your position, comes to you as soon as you are promoted. It is legal and legitimate because it is delegated to you by the organization for which you work. This power source has tremendous strength, but leaders who rely solely on this source tend to start thinking they are more important than they really are resulting in the narrowly focused thinking of the autocrat. This is the type of person who can't be wrong and looks to blame others. This is also the type of commander who calls an air strike on his own command rather then face the consequence of his actions.

The Homicide Commander, who develops his power source from the people he leads, will always prevail over the autocrat. This is called Power Source 2. You earn this power by proving you are consistent. Law enforcement people like consistency. They want to know that their boss will back them up as they go about their business. Commanders exhibit confidence by clearly showing that they know what they are doing, how they are doing it and why they are doing it and what other people are doing about it. This is the type of commander who without missing a beat, can demonstrate social compassion in an employee work-related issue as well as "tighten-up" a problem employee without destroying morale.

Commanders must avoid becoming autocrats or domineering bosses, who live by the motto, "DO as I say NOT as I DO."

Commanders must also resist the inclination to unnecessarily interfere in an investigation or engage in or micro-management, which frustrates initiative and responsibility. By the same token, Squad Commanders cannot allow themselves to become buddy-buddy with everyone because they will have effectively relinquished their command ability. Commanders must treat everyone the same (at least as far as can be seen). Don't play favorites and be ready to explain "why" something was done or not done that effects the troops. Homicide Commanders must mentally discipline themselves to be leaders who are strong, self-reliant and socially responsible.

Some commanders are naturals at building a disciplined and enthusiastic team and it is evident to everyone in the department. If you are newly assigned to supervise detectives, or you are a new commander, this is the person you want to emulate. Commanders who are naturals usually operate with both power source 1 and 2 and will be more than willing to act as mentors.

These are the commanders who encourage initiative in their subordinates. Many times during that "brainstorming" session I mentioned earlier, one of the detectives may suggest a tactic or ploy that is impracticable. Don't criticize or minimize the suggestion, especially in front of the other members. Explain why and provide the rationale behind your decision of why it won't work. If the tactic is innovative and workable make sure that the individual who suggested it is recognized for their contribution. Remember: Always be fair and truthful with your subordinates.

Be a stand-up Commander and fight for your people in the squad regardless of the issue involved. Your squad members will recognize that you are behind them and will provide you with their loyalty. Likewise when you make a mistake or are wrong admit it. Don't hide behind your rank. Soon you will have a cohesive unit and a team not afraid to jump into an investigation and suggest a course of action.

As a Commander, I always surrounded myself in any command with the detectives and supervisors whom I considered the best. If you surround yourself with good people they will make you look good. They were seasoned detectives with good solid investigatory skills who knew exactly what they had to do to solve a case. For the most part, investigators are self-motivated to get the job done. My position as commander was to provide them with the necessary resources and support so they could accomplish the mission. I knew them to be loyal and also knew that they had the confidence to tell me, "Hey Boss, I think you're wrong on that call." No problem.

I'd rather have people like that than surround myself with a bunch of sycophants. If you surround yourself with YES people who are there to feed your ego, the whole unit may go down.


The management and supervision of a homicide squad or investigative division is unique in its comparison to other police management operations. The management of day-to-day patrol operations and administrative functions can be proceduralized because of their routine and repetitive nature. In fact, management and supervision of many police operations are interchangeable and allow for supervisory reassignment and career growth within the organization.

Investigatively speaking, the intelligent management and supervision of homicide investigations requires a different approach that takes into account the unpredictable aspects of a murder investigation. There are rules, procedures, and established policies that give direction and coordination to the function, as well as guidelines implemented for specific investigative actions.

However, in homicide investigation, the on-scene commander directs and coordinates a team effort based upon established policies. As a commander, he or she is given the authority to allow for variations of the guidelines to occur when needed at the point of execution. This flexibility is based upon necessity and common sense.


Bizzack, John. No Nonsense Leadership: A Fresh Look at the Fundamental & Advanced
     Techniques Necessary to be an Effective & Successful Leader. New York: Carlton Press, 1991

Geberth, V.J. Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques.
     4th Ed. CRC Press, LLC 2006.

Keith Greenburg and Detective Vincent Felber. Perfect Beauty. New York: St. Martin's Press,
     2008, p. 154-6.


Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M.P.S. who holds dual Master's Degrees is the author of Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques 4th Ed. CRC Press, LLC 2006. He retired from the NYPD as The Commanding Officer of The Bronx Homicide Task Force, which handled over 400 murders year. These copyrighted materials have been excerpted with Geberth's permission. He can be reached at

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