Lt. Cmdr. (Ret.) NYPD Vernon J. Geberth Author of Practical Homicide Investigation®

PI Magazine: Journal of Professional Investigators, Vol. 22 Number 3, May/June 2008
Article has been expanded for research.

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If you want to avoid the inevitable missteps that can and will occur, from the initial transmittal of the homicide, to the actions of the first responders, to the arrival and preliminary investigation of the detectives, through the crime scene process and subsequent criminal investigation follow the Geberth principle, "Do it Right the First Time, You only Get One Chance."

The homicide crime scene is, without a doubt, the most important crime scene a police officer or investigator will be called upon to respond to. Because of the nature of the crime (death by violence or unnatural causes), the answer to "What has occurred?" can only be determined after a careful and intelligent examination of the crime scene and after the professional and medical evaluation of the various bits and pieces of evidence gathered by the criminal investigator. 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.

Homicide investigation is a highly professional and specialized undertaking, which requires years of practical experience coupled with a process of continual education and training. However, homicide investigation is not the exclusive purview of the investigator. Successful homicide investigation often depends on the initial actions taken by patrol officers responding to any given scene. The objective of this article is to identify the missteps and mistakes that can occur if you don't concentrate on the important initial actions that must be undertaken at the "Homicide Crime Scene."

Death investigation is a complicated process, which involves a number of different members of the police department as well as various other forensic disciplines working together towards the goal of solving the case. There are any numbers of things that can and will go wrong due to the nature of sudden and violent death. Furthermore, due to the various responsibilities of these individuals, who range from uniform officers to detectives to medical examiners to forensic experts to prosecutors and others in the process there may very well be miscommunications, which result in serious errors that effect the outcome of the case.

It all begins at the crime scene and this is where most of the errors occur.


Homicide investigation is not the exclusive purview of the investigator. In fact, successful homicide investigation often depends on the initial actions taken by patrol officers responding to any given scene. Technically speaking, all police officers have a responsibility to actively and skillfully contribute to the crime solving process. Recommendations:
  1. Rapid response to the homicide crime scene by patrol officers. This is imperative in order to protect evidentiary materials before they are destroyed, altered, or lost.
  2. Anything and everything should be considered as evidence. Whether this evidence is physical or testimonial, it must be preserved, noted, and brought to the attention of the investigators. The only evidence collected at this point of the investigation is eyewitness accounts or spontaneous statements of a suspect at the scene.
  3. After the scene is secured, immediate and appropriate notification must be made to the homicide investigators.

Probably no other aspect of homicide investigation is more open to error than the preservation and protection of the crime scene. Crime Scene Contamination is a major problem. The first official actions taken at the scene by the first responders to isolate and protect the scene as well as the follow-up investigative response to prevent scene contamination and assure the proper crime scene process is paramount to the investigation.

The homicide crime scene is not an everyday occurrence for most officers. Usual police activities either are 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.


All death inquiries should be conducted as homicide investigations and the scene handled as a crime scene until the facts prove differently. I recommend that an investigator be assigned to every unattended death case. Some agencies have mistakenly allowed patrol officers to conduct basic death investigations with the assumption that such deaths are generally not criminal incidents and don't require detective investigation. On the contrary, these cases may very well be homicides, which have been staged to appear to be suicide, accidents or natural causes.

When death investigations are NOT handled as possible homicide investigations a major misstep occurs. In equivocal death investigations we see the potential for major errors. If in fact, the death is later attributed to be homicide valuable evidence will have been lost or contaminated because the scene was not handled as a homicide case. The critical interviews and interrogations as well as crime scene documentation and photographs are irretrievable.

When all death investigations are conducted as homicide cases we minimize the possibility of missing some crucial clue or evidence because the scene has been altered or staged to misdirect the investigation. I use the term "CSI Criminals" to refer to offenders who have been known to implement some of the "insider tips" from one of the country's most popular crime series.


In keeping with the paradigm that, "All death inquiries should be conducted as homicide investigations until the facts prove differently," it is absolutely imperative that investigators not allow themselves to respond to a death investigation with any preconceived notions about the case. Most agencies will dispatch a call based on the initial report.

If the case is reported as a "suicide," the police officer who respond as well as the investigators automatically tend to treat the call as a suicide. It is a critical error in thinking to handle the call based on the initial report. The immediate problem is that psychologically you are assuming the death to be a suicide case when in fact this is a basic death investigation, which could very well turn out to be a homicide. Oftentimes, for some reason there is a tendency on the part of some police officers to treat suicides as less than serious investigations.

I call it, "Assuming the Suicide Position," which is the lackadaisical and careless attitude whereby officers resort to a "Going-through-the-motions" routine because the case is only a suicide. This is a major mistake especially in view of the many "Staged Crime Scenes, which have been occurring due to all the forensic programming that permeates television.

There is no doubt in my mind that investigators take "short-cuts" when they hear the word suicide. In the many suicide cases that I have reviewed as a consultant, it was apparent to me that the investigation did not take each point to its ultimate conclusion. Instead, certain things that should have been done were not done, sufficient photographs were not taken and certain tests were not conducted. Even though in some instances the deaths were suicides the fact of the matter was that the incomplete and insufficient preliminary investigation raised legitimate concerns.


An investigator should immediately take charge of the crime scene not only for the purposes of conducting the investigation but to observe the CSU process and recovery of evidence. Failure to maintain "chain of custody" and proper documentation of evidence is the responsibility of the assigned detective. One of the major missteps in criminal investigation is that someone did not "Take Charge" and "Set the Tone" for the investigation. Remember, if you are the detective of record and your name is on that case, "That's the most important case of your life." You are responsible for the conduct of that investigation and the subsequent court testimony to support any effective prosecution.

It is NOT a popularity contest, so be prepared to "tighten-up" and direct personnel accordingly. This is NOT a television production and there is nothing exciting about crime scene processing. However, in order to assure that anything and everything has been documented and collected follow an established protocol, which will allow you look and see everything that is in the scene as well as what should be in the scene.


Crime scene photographs are permanent and comprehensive pieces of evidence, which may be presented in a court of law to prove or disprove a fact in question. During the preliminary stage of homicide investigation it is impossible to determine all of the things, which may become relevant or important later on. Therefore, it is imperative that photos are taken of the entire area and location where the crime took place, including any sites contiguous with the original crime.

Remember, you only get one shot at the homicide crime scene, so obtain as much information and documentation as possible.

A major misstep occurs when you fail to take sufficient crime scene photographs. Many times sufficient photographs were either not taken because the case was NOT handled as a homicide investigation or because it was assumed to be a suicide or natural. In any event you can never recreate the original crime scene not go back to obtain these important photos.


Another major misstep is the failure to properly coordinate and conduct an effective canvass by assuring that every possible witness in a neighborhood, business is located, identified and questioned regarding the crime.

A canvass is a door-to-door, roadblock inquiry or brief interview with persons on the street by which detectives attempt to gain information about a specific incident. It is an important investigative tool and a vital part of the preliminary investigation at the homicide crime scene.

The correctly done canvass is an invaluable investigative technique that can provide, An actual eyewitness to the crime, Information about the circumstances of the crime, An approximate time of occurrence and/or estimate of time of death, Information about the deceased - identity, habits, friends, etc. and possible motive.


Conducting a death investigation without doing victimology is like attempting to navigate unknown territory without a GPS. Failure to evaluate the victimology precludes you from developing and ascertaining motives, suspects and risk factors. Risk factors are generally regarded as high, moderate, or low and are based on the lifestyle, neighborhood, occupation, or any specific circumstance that may occur in a person's life.

Ascertaining the victimology is the key to any successful death investigation. I have often said that, "The homicide cop learns more about the victim then the victim knew about him or herself." In order to conduct a professional inquiry and or provide a comprehensive investigative analysis a thorough victimology is paramount to the investigation.

The bottom line is "Who was the victim and what was going on in his or her life at the time of the event." The best sources of information will be friends, family, associates and neighbors and that will be the initial focus of the investigation as you attempt to identify these sources of information.


The chief investigator and/or supervisor are faced with a multitude of duties, which include various personnel. Therefore, teamwork is required for a successful homicide investigation, and it is they who must set the tone for this teamwork approach as they coordinate:

Many times during a major case investigation there is a failure to disseminate information to those who are working the case. Too often egos and turf battles occur, which derail or compromise the investigation. Lack of communication between these officers working the case and any agency or jurisdiction with a vested interest can hurt the investigation. Professionals are supposed to work as a team. It is the responsibility of the chief investigator to assure that all of the personnel involved in the investigation are continually briefed.

Provide for the dissemination of information to all units involved in the homicide investigation. Ideally, all investigators should be aware of all aspects of the case. It is up to the detective supervisor to coordinate and disseminate this information to the "troops." Properly informed officers can better perform their own assigned functions and contribute more intelligently to the overall effort.


What I consider a Major Misstep is command interference. It is one of the most frustrating errors in professional death investigation. It occurs when the too many bosses with "Headquarter type mentality" arrive at the scene with their own agenda, which has nothing to do with the death investigation. Their interests are usually politically driven and are counterproductive to the inquiry.

Many times, especially if the case is sensational or noteworthy, high-ranking officials such as the mayor, the chief of police, fire chiefs, judges, and even the chief prosecutor may appear on the scene. They are usually there to "assist" in operations, but their "assistance" and overall contribution to scene preservation is usually less than helpful. It is important to note that rank does not preclude scene contamination.

Examples of inappropriate actions are making public statements about the case before all the facts are known, insisting on providing information to the press in a timely fashion. This can be disastrous when prematurely releasing information on the cause of death before autopsy.

In many situations, because they are at the scene they feel the need to direct the investigation. Consequently superior officers will have investigators running in different directions, which have nothing to do with the primary investigative mission. The result is a loss of a cohesive and central command, miscommunications and no one stepping up willing to make decisions and take control for fear of alienating one of the bosses.


The responding patrol officer and the detective investigator are faced with a crime of the utmost gravity. Homicides entail many possible motives and methods as well as a variety of types of physical evidence. The possibility of mistakes and missteps can occur throughout the process as illustrated within this article. However, the time-proven principles of Practical Homicide Investigation®, which have been excerpted from the author's text Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques Fourth Edition CRC Press, LLC provide the practitioner with the tools necessary to conduct the proper and professional investigation at the Homicide Crime Scene.

This article appeared in PI Magazine: Journal of Professional Investigators Vol. 22 Number 3, May/June 2008

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