Conflicting Cases?
Written by Tom Adair   

Conflicting Cases?
Investigating Homicides Contemporaneous to Officer-Involved Shootings

SEASONED DETECTIVES know that homicides and officer-involved shootings can be some of the most difficult and complex scenes to investigate. Put the two together, however, and you may find yourself in a really tangled mess.

Depending on the type of investigative team your agency uses, there may be issues of appropriate evidence custodians; conflicting investigative priorities; evidence-processing entanglements; and discovery issues. None of these issues are insurmountable—but having an effective plan in place will likely save you a lot of hassles.

Training for such challenging events is well worth the effort. As a very experienced investigator once told me, “You don’t want to try to build an airplane in the air.” The same is true for these complex cases. Waiting until such a case presents itself to determine the best approach may cause a lot of unnecessary problems, bruise egos, and undermine morale.

Tabletop exercises are economical and simple to build, limited only by your imagination. While it is rare for a homicide and an officer-involved shooting to co-exist within a given envelope of time and space, developing a good plan ahead of time can make the investigative process flow much more smoothly.

Most agencies utilize one of two team approaches when investigating officer-involved shootings: the in-house approach or the multi-agency approach.

The in-house approach

The first approach is to utilize an in-house homicide-modeled critical-incident team, where members are all part of the same agency as the officer who was involved in the shooting.

This type of approach has a number of advantages. First, all of the members are likely on the same page and follow the same agency procedures. Investigators are contained under the same guide-lines or policies. They are accustomed to working with one another on a daily basis. Generally speaking, an investigation involving a homicide and critical incident should not present any significant logistical or procedural problems with this approach.

One potential downside to using this approach when investigating officer-involved shootings, however, is the possibility of generating a negative public perception. Typically, this does not hamper the investigators’ abilities, but it can generate additional stresses through negative publicity and public opinion. In some high-profile cases, the agency will need to deal with questions about impartiality on the part of detectives investigating one of their own. In cases of homicides occurring contemporaneously with the officer-involved shooting, you could expect that public pressure to double. No matter how professional the investigation, public perception may remain negative. That being said, many law-enforcement agencies throughout the country utilize this model and do so very effectively.

The multi-agency approach

The second type of team configuration typically uses a multi-agency or “taskforce” model. In this model, the investigative members come from various agencies throughout the judicial district, county, or state. Generally, there are one or more team leaders who are charged with organizing the logistics of the investigation, handing out assignments, and assuming responsibility for coordination of team members.

One major difference from the homicide model or in-house approach is that taskforce team members generally are from agencies other than that of the officer who was involved in the shooting. Evidence is collected and retained by a separate agency, as well. These teams are designed, in part, to project a sense of impartiality on the part of investigators.

A number of agencies utilize this approach and do so effectively in most cases. It certainly has an advantage when dealing with public perception, but there are some downsides as well. When taskforce teams are confronted with complex cases (such as homicides combined with officer-involved shootings) there can be some challenges created in evidence handling and retention.

The potential conflict presents itself in the form of investigative focus. In such cases, there is one certain crime (the homicide) and one potential crime or policy violation (the officer-involved shooting). Each event needs to be thoroughly investigated, but neither one is necessarily codependent on the other for resolution. From a legal standpoint, the evidence supporting the crime of a homicide and the related criminal events is likely unrelated to the evidence and events of the officer-involved shooting. In other words, the homicide evidence should stand on its own merits independent of the shooting evidence. By the same token, reaching a finding in the officer-involved shooting investigation may not require any consideration of the homicide findings. This is especially true if the shooting event is in a different geographical location than the homicide (such as the termination of a chase).

So, you might ask, where is the conflict between a homicide investigation and an officer-involved shooting investigation? The answer is in the objectives of each investigation.

Homicide-modeled critical-incident teams should not experience many conflicts in such cases because all of the evidence is handled by the same investigative agency. In most cases, it is simple to segregate investigative duties and objectives under the same agency’s policy and procedure paradigm.

Taskforce teams, on the other hand, face a number of challenges due to the nature of the taskforce design. The critical-incident team is charged with investigating the shooting and collecting evidence to support their findings. They generally have no authority—or duty—to investigate the contemporaneous homicide. That responsibility generally falls to the agency whose jurisdiction encompasses the crime scene. This is generally the same agency whose member is involved in the shooting (at least for the purpose of this article). Herein lies the potential conflict: The two teams are investigating separate incidents in the same vicinity where evidence of both events may be commingled.

The following cases are presented to further this discussion and offer suggestions that might help in resolving these conflicts.

Case Number One

Officers responded to a mobile home after a female victim called police to say her estranged husband had threatened to kill her. After a series of previous domestic violence events, the husband had moved out and was living else-where. Officers showed up and advised the female to get her kids to another residence. Using her cell phone, they also called the suspect and sternly warned him against threatening or contacting his wife. The officers reported that the suspect denied the accusations and stated he had no intention of contacting her. The officers left the mobile home.

Approximately 15 minutes later, the suspect arrived at the mobile home and killed the wife and her new boyfriend. The neighbors called 911 and police responded to the scene whereupon the suspect shot at officers as they arrived. He fled the area on foot and was confronted at a nearby intersection. The suspect took his own life in front of officers and civilian witnesses.

I was part of the homicide team investigating this double murder on behalf of the smaller agency. At one point in the evening, there was a knock at the mobile-home door and investigators from the critical-incident team and the district attorney himself wanted to enter and evaluate evidence inside the mobile home. We denied their access, not because we were defending our turf, but because we were defending the integrity of the homicide scene.

The common-sense meter told us that the officers who responded to the scene of the double murder were legally justified in engaging the suspect after being fired upon. So the only issue we could foresee was a possible breach of policy (of which there was none) that was trumped by our double homicide.

Our reasoning was quite simple. The double-homicide scene was in an extremely small and cluttered space and the last thing we needed was more people walking around—especially those who may have been more focused on looking for clues relating to an officer’s actions than evidence of the double homicide. It is completely understandable that the taskforce investigators and the district attorney were focused on learning more about the actions of officers and likely did not have a full briefing on the double homicide. Moving about the scene, they might be oblivious to evidence pertinent to the homicides.

Fortunately, the taskforce team recognized the potential problems and agreed to stay out. We did, however, communicate our findings with their team leaders and integrated their investigative questions into our crime-scene processing.

Case Number Two

Dispatch received a 911 call in which dispatchers could hear a woman screaming. The line went dead and officers were sent to the apartment. Upon forcing entry into the apartment, the officers found the suspect crouched on the bedroom floor armed with a knife. His girlfriend’s bloody body was motionless on the floor behind him. The suspect ignored repeated commands to drop the knife and lunged at officers. Aware of the female behind him, the officers shot the suspect in the legs and groin to avoid hitting the female. After securing the suspect, the officers determined that the female had been killed with a sharp-edged weapon.

This case presented some real challenges to the investigative team. Again, my team was assigned to investigate the homicide on behalf of the smaller agency while the critical-incident team investigated the shooting by officers. Unlike the previous case, however, these two complex events occurred in an area of about ten square feet. The conflict between investigative teams became immediately apparent:

The critical-incident team policy stated that they would collect and retain all evidence relating to the shooting.

The policy of the investigating agency for the homicide was that they were responsible for collecting and retaining evidence related to that crime.

But how do you separate evidence that is commingled? The carpeting, for example, contained bloodstains of the suspect and the victim. It contained bullet holes from the shooting and trace evidence from the homicide. There was no possible way of separating such evidence in the field.

This difficult situation prevailed with other items of evidence as well. Blood-stains on the walls and furniture, the condition of the phone, and the knife used by the suspect all had potential value to each independent investigation. Even the suspect possessed evidence on his clothing and body from both events in the form of bloodstains, bullet wounds, and other trace evidence. Which agency or agencies would collect and retain such evidence?

Another concern was the disposition of such evidence. The officers were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing in this case. But what if the agency retaining such evidence was unaware of the relation to the homicide and released or destroyed such evidence? I know that must seem highly unlikely, but those are the kind of conditions that Murphy’s Law prefers. A new supervisor or team leader looking at numerous disposition requests may innocently and unknowingly release evidence that was important to a homicide investigation from another agency. If the investigations are commingled, does the defense have a right through the discovery process to view reports and evidence related to the shooting? Typically, those findings are internal and not discoverable—but some judges may disagree.

Our critical-incident team and the agency’s policies did not directly address this issue. Fortunately, the common-sense meter engaged once again and we decided that the homicide processing would take precedence. The critical-incident team only retained the evidence that could be reasonably disconnected from the homicide. The investigating agency only retained evidence that was reasonably associated with the homicide. This decision was not reached quickly, but instead followed a long debate with investigators, depart-ment heads, and the district attorney. This is understandable, really. All investigators want to do their job and do it well. None want to secede their role or responsibility if that decision may hamper or jeopardize the investigation. At the same time, one must be willing to put the good of the investigation above personal feelings.

I am not suggesting that homicide investigations always trump officer-involved shootings, nor am I suggesting that the two investigations cannot be successfully coordinated to work simultaneously. But there are potential conflicts—foreseeable conflicts—that should be addressed before responding to such a scene. Every actor involved in such scenes should be well aware of the pros and cons of proceeding under these various paradigms.

I have found that a district attorney can be an invaluable resource when evaluating the legal ramifications of following a certain course of action. The problem is that they, and others, may not have considered these issues prior to such an investigation. Balancing the needs of the internal aspects of the shooting with the needs of the homicide investigation may pose challenges not easily resolved spontaneously in the field. This is the problem of “building a plane in the air,” so to speak.

Planning ahead and being prepared is the best way to avoid potential conflicts that may lead to significant mistakes in the investigation. It is well worth your time to invest in solutions to these contingencies before they happen.

About the Author

Tom Adair is a retired Senior Criminalist with the Westminster (Colorado) Police Department. He is a past president of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction. He is Board Certified as a Senior Crime Scene Analyst, Footwear Examiner, and Bloodstain Pattern Analyst with the International Association for Identifi-ation (IAI). Adair has authored more than 50 papers in forensic journals. He currently writes on crime-prevention topics for The Examiner, an online magazine that can be found at: www.examiner.com Adair can be reached via e-mail at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED:
"Conflicting Cases? Investigating Homicides Contemporaneous to Office-Involved Shootings," written by Tom Adair
March-April 2010 (Volume 8, Number 2)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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