Monday, June 25, 2012

Informants: Working Hard or Hardly Working

When I first started out as a young police detective, I would spend hundreds of hours, often times for naught, trying to solve a heinous or complex crime.  After a while, I discovered that if I spent about fifteen minutes with the right person, in the right place, and maybe throw in a cigarette and a candy bar, I could often crack the case.  In investigating terms, the right person was an informant.  This goes for both police detectives and private investigators.  Often times there is someone out there who has knowledge of the case, but you have to use the right approach and do it in the right location, in order to get the right results. 

Try not to let police movies or TV cloud your vision of how to work an informant.  You don’t approach someone on the street and expect them to talk to you.  By doing this, it also shows your lack of knowledge of the street and you won’t be trusted.  For police detectives, an individual can be interviewed back at the police station or in the lock up. 

I used to scan the daily arrest logs to see if anyone got arrested near one of the crimes I was investigating, or if any of my informants had managed to get themselves locked up.  I’d talk to the detective that was handling the individual’s current arrest to clear it with him, and then I’d go and talk to him.  It’s amazing how many arrestees, knowing that their looking at going back to prison, will talk to you if you have the right approach.  You have to be able to convince them that you will protect them and not reveal their identity.  Start small, and once they give something up that appears to be good, that’s when they get rewarded with the coffee or soda.  The more they give up, and the bigger the case, is when the candy bars and cigarettes come out.  Remember, they get the goodies after they cooperate, not before.

The same holds for private investigators.  You can meet with a possible cooperative informant off-site from his workplace or home.  Whether you’re a cop or a PI, you always pick the time and location.  You want to make sure you’re not being setup.

Different motivations motivate different people to give up information.  It can be fear, revenge, retaliation, power, honesty etc.  You need to find which one is the one that turns your informant.  Find the right one, and your case can be solved.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

George Zimmerman - Defendant’s Rights and the Media

On Thursday, June 14, The Daily Breeze (a newspaper here in Southern California) reported that a judge in Orlando, Florida, had ruled that statements made by George Zimmerman to police detectives after he fatally shot Trayvon Martin can be released to the public.  The judge further ruled that the identities of witnesses who had not been identified yet, can stay private.  The article went on to state that both the prosecutors and Zimmerman’s defense attorney had wanted to keep both Zimmerman’s statement and the witnesses identities private.

Additionally, according to the article, the judge said disclosing Zimmerman’s statements to police detectives would not jeopardize his ability to get a fair trial.  Further, the judge ruled that tests given to Zimmerman after the shooting could be released, as well as some crime scene photos and Zimmerman’s recorded telephone calls from jail.

Where do I begin?  The United States Constitution guarantees the accused the right to, among other things, a fair and impartial jury.  This judge’s ruling allows key elements to the case, including Zimmerman’s statement to police, crime scene photographs, and Zimmerman’s recorded telephone calls from jail to be released to the press.  Among other things, this allows the potential jury pool that will sit in judgment of Zimmerman to view  key evidence of the case before it can be argued in court.  Potentially this information can be splashed all over newspapers and be argued by so-called experts on TV talk shows again before a trial even begins.

I note also that the article stated that both the prosecution and the defense attorneys argued against the release of this information.  Ironic that both opposing counsels argued against it but the judge ruled in favor of the news media who wants to have it.  Is it just me that thinks this ruling says that the rights of the news media trumps those of the defendant who is on trial. 
At least the judge ruled against releasing the identities of the witnesses in the case who have not yet been identified.  Can you imagine the circus that would have ensued if he hadn’t?  You would have had news agencies parked out in front of their houses and knocking on their homes or workplaces just to get an exclusive interview.

I am not arguing the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman here.  That should be done in a court of law with all the evidence presented before a jury of his peers.  What I am saying is that this latest ruling by a Circuit Court judge in Florida troubles me greatly in regards to Mr. Zimmerman chances of getting a fair and impartial jury.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Homicide Rates in the City of Angels

When people talk about homicide rates, I always tell them about the Homicide division I worked in back in the late 1980’s for the Los Angeles Police Department. The police division was the 77th Street Division, which was located in South Central Los Angeles.  There were seven teams of homicide detectives with a total of 14 detectives along with one detective supervisor.  In 1987 there were 160 murders in that division alone, which is the most for any one police division in the city’s history.  Again, that was not the city wide homicide count; it was just our division’s.  I believe there were 18 LAPD geographical police divisions at the time. It was not uncommon for one team that had the weekend on call in 77th Division to have two or three homicides over a weekend.

There is no other way to put it, but that 77th Division was a violent area.  It was the divisional policy to call out a homicide team only if the victim was pronounced dead at the scene.  There were shootings, stabbings, bludgeoning’s and beatings etc. almost daily.  Many of these crimes were gang related with Crips and Blood gangs shooting each other with regularity.  The term ‘drive-by shooting’ became a household word.  On many of these occasions the victim(s) miraculously survived.  Those serious crimes were the victim(s) lived were handled by the crimes against persons (CAPS) unit.  If homicide detectives had to roll out for every serious crime that occurred in the division where the victim was still alive they would have completely worn us out.  It is truly amazing how resilient the human body is and how much punishment it can take. 

I recall on one occasion where we were called out because the victim had been stabbed in the heart and another where the victim had been shot multiple times, including one to the head, and they were still alive but in critical division.   The sergeants at both crime scenes felt that the victims were going to expire and called us out.   We worked all through the night and into the next day conducting the crime scene investigations, canvassing the area and interviewing witnesses.  In both cases the victims survived.  The cases were then turned over to CAPS detectives.  Our case load was too intense to handle anything other than homicides.

It also seemed that no one died till after midnight.  When you had the weekend on-call duty, you’d try not to work overtime on Friday and get home and jump into bed for a few hours’ sleep.  The phone calls from the watch commander’s office notifying us of a murder always seemed to come between midnight and 4:00 AM.  You never got enough sleep, you were always working overtime trying to solve cases, and when you did you were constantly in court for preliminary hearings and murder trials.  

You also knew that you and your partner were the only ones that could obtain justice for the victim.

Friday, June 1, 2012


A 33 year old missing person’s case in New York City is again drawing international headlines. On May 25, 1979, six year old Etan Patz disappeared on his way to school.  His photograph was the first missing child to appear on milk cartons.  Although the case has been widely publicized throughout the years, no arrests were ever made.  Recently, however, news reports have stated that NYPD detectives had interviewed an individual in New Jersey and he had confessed to the crime. These same reports stated that the suspect had discarded the victim’s body in a trash bag in the garbage.

From an investigative stand point, this is an extremely difficult case.  First and foremost, you’re dealing with a criminal case that is 33 years old.  Secondly, the victim’s remains have never been recovered.  Witnesses may be difficult to locate, some of the detectives who worked on the case could be deceased, possible crime scenes may have been renovated or destroyed, case files could be misplaced, evidence could be compromised etc.  The neighborhood where the crime took place could be severely altered after so much time has passed.

If the suspect has supposedly confessed to the detectives, probably the most important part of the interrogation from a prosecutorial standpoint is if the suspect told the detectives things that only the killer would know.  Police detectives will always attempt to hold back from the public important details in a crime for just that reason.  It’s not uncommon to have people confess to notorious crimes.  It’s when you get down to specific issues that are unique to that specific crime is how detectives can weed out the sensation seekers from the real suspect.

The job facing the NYPD detectives will be going back and trying to recreate a crime scene from information obtained from the confession.  They will go over everything the suspect told them to see if they can find any type of physical evidence or eyewitness accounts to match his story.  They will be going over New York City Sanitation records to attempt to find out any information regarding trash pickup on the specific date and location that the suspect provided them.  They’ll attempt to locate the truck driver and any sanitation workers that were on the route on that day.  They’ll even go over city dump records in an attempt to locate the specific location in the dump where that specific truck off loaded its contents.

Attempting to file a criminal case against a defendant without any evidence other than a confession would be difficult at best.  The tragedy begins all over again for the victim’s family, who are again thrust into the limelight because of this horrible crime.