By Anne Jayne
Detective Dave Sweet from the Homicide Unit of the Calgary Police Service spoke about homicide investigation to a standing-room-only crowd at the When Words Collide convention.
The Homicide Unit has a strategy that allows them to assign a maximum number of detectives to a case in the early hours and days. The process is called Major Case Management, which is used elsewhere in Canada, as well.
The detectives in the Homicide Unit take turns being the primary investigator, the file coordinator, and members of the team. While both the primary investigator and the file coordinator report to the team commander, a staff sergeant, these officers normally exercise their professional judgment in handling the investigation.
The primary investigator controls the speed, flow, and direction of the investigation. The primary investigator will have a dozen or so detectives available to assign to all the tasks that must be done as rapidly as possible. When a detective reports back with new information, then the primary sets a new task for that officer.
What the primary investigator does not do—at least in the first days of the investigation—is to go out into the field, not even to visit the crime scene or to interview witnesses. The investigation has to move too fast, and it simply isn’t possible for the primary to lose time going out to the field. There is too much to do to ensure that the entire team is working efficiently and at full speed to gather information. Time is of the essence because, they believe, if they don’t have a good idea of who is responsible within two days, it will be a long investigation.
The file coordinator tracks everything that is written, such as witness statements and officer statements, forensic information, and so on. The file coordinator isn’t just filing all of this material: he or she is monitoring the incoming information and keeping the primary in the loop.
All of these officers are seeking the pieces of the puzzle they’ve been assigned to get. As the pieces come in, they can start putting the puzzle together. Those pieces will deal with the three major elements that must be investigated: the body; the history; and the scene. The detectives let evidence form their theory, rather than trying to fit evidence into a theory.
Det. Sweet talked about the pattern of homicides in Calgary. The most homicides in a year was 34; the average is 28. The solve rate is 69% (based on a five year average). The preferred weapon: knives. The highest number of homicides are in the months of January and August, and June has the fewest. Saturday night has the highest number of homicides during the week; Monday has the fewest. The most common times: between 3 and 4 in the morning, which corresponds to when the bars close. The fewest: between 5 and 6 a.m.
There is a protocol for calling in the Homicide Unit. When a uniformed officer who is first on the scene believes that it is a sudden death situation, he or she will call it in with a 1032 code, and will describe it as “good” (natural death) or “bad” for a possible homicide. If the assessment of either the uniformed officer who is first on the scene, or the investigator from the Medical Examiner, is that the Homicide Unit should be called in, that’s when the process begins. The next step is that every detective will be called in, whether it is 1 a.m. or the middle of a child’s birthday party.
The Medical Examiner determines the cause and manner of death. The manner of death may be natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, or undetermined.
When will the Homicide Unit be called in? The Unit handles not only homicides, but all suspicious deaths and all cases which involve a handgun and a person in custody or a police officer. In the latter situation, the Calgary Police Service handles the investigation concerning the subject, while an independent team—the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team—investigates the officer.
The Homicide Unit has access to other resources: profilers, including geographical profilers; dentists with expertise in forensic odontology; experts on blood pattern analysis, fibre and trace evidence, knot craft; and the like; forensic anthropologists; forensic computer animators, and many, many, more experts. They can get access to satellite imagery, which has proven to be particularly helpful when bodies are found in rural areas. The images can be so precise that a vehicle can be identified. (This is costly, however.)
Calgary’s Homicide Unit sends extremely detailed information about homicides to the Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (VCLAS), which is intended to link similar murders across the country. Every police service is required to participate.
Detective Sweet closed by saying that the Homicide Unit investigates cases with equal thoroughness. There are no second class citizens when they are investigating a homicide. They will work as tirelessly on the case of a gang member caught up in gang violence as they do for any other homicide.
Detective Sweet’s presentation was informative and well-presented. Not only was the audience appreciative—but a good many people at this workshop stayed behind to ask him even more questions.