Friday, May 3, 2013

Homicide School - Getting It Right

When I tell people I went to a Homicide School, they give me a strange look or laugh. Or both. But that's what I did last weekend in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was the Writers Homicide School conducted by retired Sgt. Derek Pacifico, a former homicide detective with the San Bernardino County, California Sheriff's Department. With a little more than 2,000,000 population, San Bernardino County's 20,000 square-mile area makes it the largest county in the U.S., with more area than the nine smallest states. It stretches from the eastern edge of Los Angeles County to the Nevada border.

Retired Sgt. Derek Pacifico
Pacifico had been training police officers, military police, and federal agents since 1995. After being invited to speak to a Los Angeles writers group, he was booked by other writers groups about the state and urged to put on a two-day seminar. As a result he formed Crime Writers Consultations, providing advice for novelists and screenwriters. He moved to Knoxville last fall after retirement and set up plans for the Writers Homicide School, a two-day seminar to provide writers with the reality of life as a homicide detective. Through a mixup with an organization that was to promote the school, we had only eight in the class, providing an up-close and personal experience.

He started with procedures for hiring and training police officers. He said it takes three years to find your niche. Some like working the streets in uniform, others prefer the plainclothes route. The best detectives wind up in homicide (maybe a little ego there). He covered the various types of homicide, leading up to murder, which can carry the death penalty.

After covering the crime scene, we got a look (literally, with photos) at how the body appears with different types of wounds, gunshot, knife, etc. Then we took up the subject of evidence. Pacifico discussed how to collect various types of physical evidence, looking for information unwittingly left behind. He covered collecting such as fibers, glass, auto paint, gunshot residue (a test he said was unreliable), footprints, tire marks, tool marks, and using an electrostatic dust kit. He spiced his discussion with lots of anecdotes, such as a case where good footprints were found but before they could be lifted, a sprinkler came on and obliterated them.

The sergeant's badge
We watched lots of film clips concerning various aspects of homicide investigation. One point he stressed was nothing gets moved at the scene until it's photographed, measured, identified, and collected/preserved. He covered the subject of blood spatters in detail. We did a little experiment using red ink with a consistency similar to blood, making a trail of droplets that, when analyzed, showed the direction the bleeder was moving.

By far the largest part of the seminar dealt with interrogation. He talked a lot about how TV shows get it wrong and showed some clips of bad technique. Pacifico discussed at length the preparation normally used prior to going into the interrogation room. He showed video of interrogations that gave us a bird's eye view of how you work to make the suspect comfortable and gain his trust. The interview comes first, then the interrogation. He talked about the point at which a subject must be read his Miranda rights.

He told us how to judge the truthfulness of the subject's answers. It's similar to a polygraph test where questions are first asked that establish a baseline for reactions to truthful answers and lies. Body language is the key. What are the eyes doing, the hands, arms, legs? Posture can be revealing. Shallow breathing, glazed eyes, hand wringing. How they answer questions can be a clue. Liars stall to gain more time to think about a response.

When accused of a crime, the innocent will deny it directly and adamantly. The denials will become stronger over time. On the other hand, the guilty will start with a weak denial that will get weaker as the questioning continues.

One interrogation video demonstrated the good cop/bad cop routine. Pacifico took over the good cop role for awhile, and little more than a minute after the "bad cop" left the room, the suspect confessed. "We found this was a reliable technique," he said. The session had gone on for about 45 minutes.

I've only hit some of the highlights here, but the Writers Homicide School was well worth the cost in both time and money. I came away with lots of fodder for future stories. If you''d like to check it out, go to

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Susan Elizabeth said...

This is such a great idea! I heard of local police departments holding a week or so of classes for citizens, but nothing geared specifically towards writers. Sounds like it was informative and exciting!

Chester Campbell said...

Right, Susan. I've attended the Nashville Citizens Police Academy and while I got a lot out of it, this seminar was geared to writers and strictly concerned the job of homicide detectives.

Randy Rawls said...

Interesting, Chester. Glad you reported on it.

Earl Staggs said...

Most interesting and informative, Chester. Thanks for sharing it.

Morgan Mandel said...

Great fodder for your books!

Morgan Mandel

Madison Johns said...

Interesting, thanks!