Homicide: best practices

[Note: For those looking for how to commit the perfect crime as the headline could suggest, this post is not for you.]

There’s been a lot of debate lately over the Winnipeg Police Service homicide unit’s operations, largely driven by a former supervising sergeant’s labour board complaint about how he was treated and how he believes the Winnipeg Police Service’s transfer policy hampers the effectiveness of the unit.

As previously stated, I won’t go into much greater detail about the Labour Board hearing so far, as it’s really Mike McIntyre and the Free Press’ baby (Links hereherehere and here).

But there’s a question I’ve been asking myself and finally dug into a but yesterday.

What, from an operational/internal POV makes for a (quote-unquote) good/effective homicide unit? The rate at which crimes are solved? Convictions? Response times?

Turns out a retired homicide commander in the U.S. wondered the same thing in 2007-08. A rising national homicide rate was worrying him and he began formally asking around among his peers.

Timothy Keel’s study, published by the FBI, is available here.

He sets out the issues as follows:

Nationally, the number of homicides reported by police departments to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program is on the rise.1 Equally disturbing, the clearance rate for those crimes continues to decline.Law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about the reasons for these statistics and what they can do about them. Although most homicide unit supervisors are confident in their detectives’ abilities to solve cases, they might be asking themselves if, from a management perspective, their current practices and procedures allow for the highest possible clearance rate.

To explore these issues, the author conducted a study of homicide units across the country. He developed a questionnaire that pertained to a variety of operational and management issues and focused on how the well-performing units investigate homicides.3 Departments chosen for this study met two criteria: 1) they have more than 25 HPY (homicides per year) over a 5-year average, and 2) they submit crime data for the UCR Program.4 Eighty-one departments received questionnaires, and 55 completed and returned them.responses.

The finer points of the article break down trends and arrive at some kind of consensus about what ‘best practices’ are for murder police and their bosses. The summary goes as follows, bolded bullet emphasis mine.

Keys to a Successful Homicide Unit

  • No more than five cases per year as a primary for each detective
  • Minimum of two, two-person units responding initially to the crime scene
  • Case review by all involved personnel within the first 24 to 72 hours
  • Computerized case management system with relational capacity
  • Standardized and computerized car-stop and neighborhood-canvass forms
  • Compstat-style format
  • Effective working relationships with medical examiners and prosecutors
  • No rotation policy for homicide detectives
  • Accessibility to work overtime when needed
  • Cold case squads
  • Investigative tools, such as polygraph, bloodstain pattern analysis, criminal investigative analysis, and statement analysis
  • Homicide unit and other personnel work as a team
Personnel Rotation

The issue of rotating detectives out of the homicide unit after a set period of time, regardless of their effectiveness as an investigator, is a relatively new phenomenon plaguing many supervisors. While the concept of a rotation policy may have benefits from a management perspective, this study suggested that chiefs considering implementing such a policy for homicide detectives should proceed cautiously. For example, only 3 of the 55 departments had a rotation policy of any type within their detective division. No department with an average of over 80 HPY (ed: homicides per year) reported having a rotation policy for homicide detectives. Even agencies that currently have a rotation policy extend the period of time that a detective can remain in the unit.

[Aside: interestingly, Keel’s ‘study’ also reports a rise in clearance rates [clearance meaning a suspect was arrested/charged] when a prosecutor visits the homicide scene. But the involvement of prosecutors can also take away from clearing a homicide, likely because the lawyer demands more evidence be gathered prior to officers charging someone.]
Departments that typically involved a prosecutor in the early stages of an investigation had a higher clearance rate on average. The average clearance rate became progressively lower when prosecutors became involved during the later stages of an investigation. Conversely, departments that require detectives to consult prosecutors before issuing an arrest warrant had a 6.6 percent lower clearance rate than those that did not have such a requirement. Perhaps, departments that allow detectives to use their judgment pertaining to prosecutor notification and prosecutors comfortable enough to allow detectives that discretion have a better working relationship.
Typically, the Winnipeg Police Service’s homicide clearance rate has been very good, with — by my counting — roughly four out of five homicides being cleared by charging a suspect.
Annual reports from the WPS say 81 per cent of homicides cleared in 09-10 and 08-09. 
Seventy-seven per cent were cleared in 07-08, up 23 per cent from the year prior. 
Time will only tell how 10-11 and 11-12 pan out.
But no matter what police do in terms of the HR structuring of the unit, the investigators placed there, and the vagaries of their working conditions, Keel’s report is blunt when it comes to the number one thing cops need to solve killings — an aspect desperately lacking in the city when one considers the most recent unsolved murders in Winnipeg.
When questioned about the biggest barrier to achieving higher homicide clearance rates, one common theme occurred among all ranks: the lack of public/witness cooperation.
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