First Officer's Duties at the Homicide Scene©

©2005 Vernon J. Geberth, Practical Homicide Investigation
Reprint: Law and Order, Vol. 53, No. 9, September, 2005
Article Expanded for Research

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The initial actions taken by the first officer in a homicide case may determine whether or not there will be a successful homicide investigation. It is imperative that the First Officers adhere to recognized and standard operating procedures to assure a professional conclusion. This article will concentrate on the following events, which initiate a homicide investigation.

  1. The actions that should be taken by police officers and police personnel who first receive a report of a possible homicide.
  2. The actions that should be taken by a police officer when a witness or passerby reports a possible homicide in person.
  3. The actions that should be taken by first officers on arrival at the homicide crime scene.
  4. The preliminary investigation that should be initiated by the first officer.

Notification of a Possible Homicide: The Official Notification to the Police

The first notification to the police department of an actual or suspected homicide, or an incident that may develop into one, is usually received by telephone.

  1. Obtain and record the following information.
         a. The exact time the call was received.
         b. The exact location(s) of occurrence.
         c. Whether the perpetrator(s), suspicious person(s), or vehicle(s) are still at the scene. Try to get any descriptive
             information and direction of flight for the immediate transmission of alarms and/or notification to other patrol units.
         d. Where the person calling the police is located, and whether that person will remain. If not, where he or she can be contacted.
         e. The name, address, and phone number of the person reporting the incident.
  2. Request the caller's assistance.
         a. Where practical, if the person making the report seems of suitable age and discretion (Calm, etc.), request his or her
             assistance in safeguarding the location of occurrence. This request should be put into specific terms; for example,
              1. that no one be admitted other than law enforcement personnel or medical people,
              2. that nothing be disturbed.

First Notification of Homicide Received in Person by Patrol Officer

If the first notification is received in person by an officer on patrol, he should immediately note the time and the exact information.

  1. The person reporting it should be requested to accompany the officer, and this person should be returned to the vicinity of the crime scene and detained for the investigators.
  2. It is important to note that valuable information is often irrevocably lost because the person who reported the homicide to the police officer is allowed to wander off in the confusion at the scene or is not detained for the homicide detective.
  3. If for some reason the officer cannot detain this person, he should at least obtain sufficient identification and other personal information so that the follow-up investigator can interview this important witness at a later date.
  4. There is always the possibility that the person reporting the crime is actually the killer.
Remember, when returning this reporting person to the possible homicide location, never allow him or her to enter the actual crime scene itself. You may contaminate this scene either by adding something to it, or by negating the value of trace evidence, which will be found later on and may point to the possible perpetrator.

First Officer's Duties on Arrival at the Scene

In almost all instances, the first officer to arrive at any homicide crime scene is the uniformed patrol officer. Rarely is the patrol officer a witness to the actual homicide. He usually arrives a short time after in response to a radio transmission or emergency call made by some citizen who has either witnessed the crime or has stumbled upon the homicide scene.

On arrival at the homicide crime scene, the situation confronting the first officer can fall anywhere between these two extremes:

  1. He might be met by one individual, calm and composed, who directs him to a body which, manifests obvious, conclusive signs of death, in a location which is easily secured and/or safeguarded; or
  2. The scene might be filled with people milling about, shouting and/or weeping, the perpetrator may still be at the scene or just escaping, the victim may still be alive, and in need of immediate medical assistance, and the scene itself may be a public or quasi-public place which is difficult to safeguard.

Whatever the situation at the scene, the first officer has three primary duties.

  1. Determining whether the victim is alive or dead and the necessary actions to be taken.
  2. Apprehending of the perpetrator, if still present, or giving the appropriate notifications if he is escaping or has escaped.
  3. Safeguarding the scene and detaining witnesses or suspects.

Protection of Life

Each case, of course, will require a different pattern of responses, but the major principle, which should guide the first officer is the protection of life. The protection of life includes not only that of the victim, where there is a possibility of saving him; but also others on the scene including the suspect and the officer himself. Situations such as barricaded felons exchanging fire with responding police units as a victim lies on the line of fire, possible hostages, and the ever-increasing instances of terrorist acts, obviously will require additional police responses, including requests for specialized units.

Safeguarding the Scene and Detaining Witnesses or Suspects

The first officer at the scene of a homicide is immediately confronted with a multitude of problems, which he must quickly analyze so as to take the necessary steps. Quickness, however, does not imply haste. The first officer's actions must be deliberate and controlled. When the assignment information, communicated to him by radio, passerby, or telephone suggests an incident, which is or may become a homicide, the officer, as he approaches the given location, must become scene conscious. He must be alert to important details which are transient in nature and which may be subject to chemical change. Changes may occur by dissipation, or simply by being moved by persons on or arriving at the scene. These may include, but are not limited to:

  1. The condition of doors and windows, whether closed or ajar, locked or unlocked. Whether shades are drawn or open, the position of shutters or blinds, etc.
  2. Odors, such as perfume, after-shave lotion, gas, marijuana, cigar or cigarette smoke, gunpowder, chemicals, putrefaction, etc.
  3. Evidence which may be obliterated or damaged on the approach to the central scene, such as tire marks on the roadway, stains such as blood or other body fluids, fibers, shell casings either on the floor or in high grass or soil. In addition there may be discarded cigarettes or cigars, matchsticks, a weapon, fingerprints, and even personal property of the perpetrator left behind in his haste to get away.
  4. Whether lights and light switches are on or off. Condition of electrical appliances - on or off, warm or cold.
  5. Original position of furniture or articles which may have been moved in order to get to the victim to render first aid, to make a determination of death, etc. (If ambulance personnel arrived before patrol units, patrol officer should get their identification and determine what, if anything, was moved or touched.)

In most instances the first officer will face an emergency condition at the homicide crime scene. However, he must maintain a professional image, which will enable him to perform effectively during this preliminary response stage. The first officer should direct his attention to isolating the body and immediate surroundings from all other persons. This procedure alone will usually call for a great deal of tact in dealing with members of the family who may be present, sympathetic neighbors, and the curious, whether strangers or other police officers who have responded.

In this phase of preservation of the scene and removal of unauthorized persons, the first officer in his diligence to remove unnecessary persons should be careful not to chase off possible witnesses or others who have important information. Do not overlook the possibility that one of the people you might chase off could be the perpetrator.

Remember, at this stage of the investigation, the only evidence that should be collected by the patrol officer is eyewitness or testimonial in nature such as res gestae or spontaneous utterances of a suspect.

The First Officer Initiates the Homicide Investigation

The first officer who is confronted by the homicide crime scene has a very involved responsibility. Although the formal investigation will be conducted by detectives or the criminal investigator, it is the first officer who has the responsibility of initiating the investigation. I have provided ten practical rules of procedure, which may be used as a guide in initiating a professional homicide investigation.

  1. Arrest the perpetrator if you can determine by direct inquiry or observation that he or she is the suspect. (As a general rule, do not question him or her at this stage.)
  2. Detain all persons present at the scene. 2. Attempt to assess and determine the entire area of the crime scene including paths of entry and exit and any areas that may include evidence.
  3. Isolate the area and protect the scene. Seek assistance if necessary. Notifications must be made to superiors, investigators, and specialized units. (Use crime scene tape)
  4. Refrain from entering the scene and/or disturbing, touching, or using any item found therein. Never use the crime scene as a command post or the telephone as a communications center. In communicating with the station house or headquarters, the first officer should not, unless absolutely necessary, use a telephone instrument at the scene. This necessity should be determined by common sense and priorities. The first officers should instead establish a temporary command post outside the central crime scene, preferably where there are at least two phones available, one for incoming and one for outgoing calls. In the early stages of the investigation, there is a definite need for rapid communication between the various centers of investigation.
  5. Identify and, if possible, retain for questioning the person who first notified the police.
  6. Separate the witnesses so as to obtain independent statements.
  7. Exclude all unauthorized persons from entering the crime scene until the arrival of the investigators. This, of course, includes police officers not directly involved in the crime scene investigation. The detective supervisor and the investigator assigned are, of course, allowed entry into the scene for evaluation purposes. Other unavoidable exceptions may include the medical examiner, or a doctor or clergymen. In any event, establish a pathway in and out so as to avoid unnecessary disturbance.
  8. Keep a chronological log containing the name, shield number, command, and title of any police official who enters; the name, serial number, and hospital of any medical personnel, ambulance driver, or technician; and the names and addresses of any civilians entering the crime scene.
  9. Take notes.


Patrol officers responding to a report of a possible homicide at St. Leander's Catholic Church in Pueblo, Colorado discovered the bodies of two priests, who had been brutally stabbed and murdered in the rectory of the church. The first officers had received crime scene training instructions from a detective who had attended a Practical Homicide Investigation seminar. The two officers, realizing the gravity of this event, secured the entire square block surrounding the Church, the Rectory and the school.

This action turned out to be quite fortuitous. The responding detectives, upon examining the scene, became aware of blood droppings, which led from the front door of the rectory down the pathway to the sidewalk. Apparently, the offender had injured himself during this assault and was bleeding as he left the scene.

Because the First Officers had secured such a larger perimeter these blood droppings were protected from contamination and/or destruction by other responders as well as onlookers and other persons who would gather at the scene.

In fact, the detectives were able to could actually follow these blood drop.


In conclusion, the police officer who is responding to or confronted by the homicide crime scene should prepare to take five basic steps upon arrival. If he executes them carefully, he will have initiated a proper professional investigation.

The homicide crime scene is not an everyday occurrence for most officers. Usual police activities are either emergencies, requiring automatic reaction, or routine handling of called-for-services. The officer who confronts the homicide crime scene, however, finds himself somewhere between these two extremes. He must therefore force himself to adapt to the situation. I offer the acronym ADAPT as a basic, five-step approach.

A   Arrest the perpetrator, if possible.
D   Detain and identify witnesses and/or suspects for follow-up investigators.
A   Assess the crime scene.
P   Protect the crime scene.
T   Take notes.

It should be noted that the arrest in A by the responding police officer is actually an apprehension. However, since any seizure of a person is legally an arrest, I have used the term arrest. I recommend that the actual arrest for homicide should be made by the detective or investigator assigned to the case. The police officer should get full credit for the apprehension but the formal arrest is a function of the investigative division of the police agency. I make this point because the formal arrest is based on the original probable cause resulting in the apprehension of the suspect coupled with all of the investigative information developed during the subsequent inquiry by the detective.

The arrest is only the beginning of a long legal process. There will be additional interviews of witnesses, preliminary hearings, possible grand jury appearance in certain jurisdictions, and a number of court appearances leading up to trial. For the purposes of effective prosecution, it is imperative that the police representative be the arresting officer as well as the case officer. This is an important legal strategy for any subsequent defense tactic to challenge the initial arrest.

The apprehending officer will only be testifying to his or her observations and initial probable cause. The detective will carry the weight of the prosecution's case by providing the investigative details and evidence, which supports the charge of homicide.

First Officer
Crime Scene Checklist

Clear the largest area possible. The scene can always be narrowed down later.

Make a quick and objective evaluation of the scene based on location of the body, presnece of any physical evidence, eyewitness statements, presence of any natural boundaries i.e., a room, a house, hallway, or enclosed park.

Keep in mind the possibility of a multiple series of crime scenes.

The  ADAPT,  5-step approach:

  A   Arrest (or apprehend) the
         perpetrator, if possible.
  D   Detain and identify witnesses
        and/or suspects for follow-up
  A   Assess the crime scene.
  P   Protect the crime scene.
  T   Take notes.

Remember, Do It Right The First Time. You Only Get One Chance.

The materials in this article were excerpted from the copyrights book, Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques, 3rd Edition, CRC Press, LLC Considered “The Bible of Homicide Investigation" and authored by Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M.P.S. Retired Lieutenant Commander, NYPD C.O. Bronx Homicide Task Force.

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