Professional Homicide Investigation: A Personal Perspective

By Vernon J. Geberth, M.S., M.P.S.
Former Commander, Bronx Homicide, NYPD

The world of the homicide detective is permeated with human tragedies which involve a variety of sudden and violent death scenarios. Many of these events, which are seemingly beyond the comprehension of the average person, reveal motivations and patterns of repetition which are recognized by experienced detectives. They become keenly aware of the reality of death and the impact it has on both society and the surviving family.

In fact, we in homicide have a mission. Our mission is to bring justice to the deceased and their surviving family. We do this by conducting a professional investigation which results in the identification and apprehension of the killer and the successful prosecution of the case.

Professional homicide investigators first concentrate on the mechanical aspects of the death, i.e. motives and methods, wound structures, crime scene reconstruction, the cause, manner and time of death as well as other factors that provide clues to the dynamics of the event. They learn to deal with death in a clinical manner by not projecting a personality into the body.

My way of dealing with the reality of sudden and violent death is a strong belief in God and a belief in a higher order of things in our existence. My theology informs me that there is an afterlife and I believe that the soul of the murder victim has left the body.

In order to function effectively, it is imperative that detectives develop a strong ego defense mecha-nism which provides an isolation of affect by means of intellectualization. This allows the investigator to focus and concentrate on the dynamics of the event and not become emotionally involved in the crime.

A professional homicide investigator is a “Truth Seeker.” He is not opinionated, tainted with prejudice or prone to prejudgment.

There is a need for patience and flexibility in homicide investigation. A professional practitioner cannot have a “lock-and-load” mentality. He must have a flexible personality that is open to new sugges-tions, ideas and concepts that arise in these fluid types of investigations. The detective looks for consistencies as well as inconsistencies and must bc prepared to change the focus of the investigation as new information is developed.

There is a profound duty and awesome responsibility in dealing with the surviving family in the murder investigation process. It is the homicide detective who encounters the reality of sudden and violent death and then must deal with the emotions and dynamics of the surviving family, guiding the family through a complicated and confusing criminal justice system that is devoid of human compassion.

This explains why homicide detectives, unlike criminal defense attorneys, do not view criminal proceedings as a “game.” While defense attorneys engage in legal chicanery, maneuvers, and machinations to cloud the issue or create reasonable doubt, thereby relegating the real victims to the sidelines, murder cops are deadly serious.

Although police officers are painfully aware of the inequities of the criminal justice system, most people outside the law enforcement community are not prepared for a system that punishes the innocent by protecting the guilty. Many survivors experience outrage as the homicide case progresses through a system which tends to protect the accused, while completely ignoring the victim.

While judges and attorneys ponder endlessly over the minute technical issues of the case and the rights of the accused, the surviving family is oftentimes left completely out of the process which adds to their feelings of helplessness and frustration.

This is why it is important that detectives develop and maintain an understanding of the dynamics and principles of professional homicide investigation. In fact, the homicide detective, in addition to pursuing the case, becomes the advocate for both the deceased and the surviving family throughout the process.

Death investigation is a heavy responsibility, and as such, no person, system, nor circumstance should deter you from the truth and your own personal commitment to see that justice is done. Not only for the deceased, but for the surviving family as well.

That is why my personal philosophy as a murder cop is, “Remember: We work for God.”

©1995 Vernon J. Geberth, Practical Homicide Investigation Law & Order, March 1995

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