I sat down with my dear friend, Detective (Ret.) Kim McGath, to talk crime, writing, police procedure, and how to best make our stories ring true. Some of you may remember Kim from her guest post, Who Is The Zodiac Killer? As you follow along, you’ll see how valuable a conversation with a detective, coroner, profiler, criminologist, forensic technician, etc…can be.
Which is the basis behind #ACrimeChat. When I founded the group I envisioned a place where writers could get quick answers to their technical questions, from credible sources they could trust. After each chat I create a recap. Last week’s topic (pictured below – click arrow to start slideshow): Fingerprints, Courtroom Testimony, and Dying Declarations. We try to stay on topic, but not at the expense of the crime writing community. In other words, if you have a question but it’s not on topic, send it to me anyway. Today’s topic is Writer’s Choice. Ask anything you’d like and we’ll answer during the chat. You will also be notified when the recap is ready.
— Sue Coletta (@SueColetta1) June 30, 2016
Welcome back to Murder Blog, Kim. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
Kim: Hi, Sue. It’s great to be here. Sure!
Sue: What are the most common questions you receive from crime writers?
Kim: One of the most frequently asked questions is how to create an authentic crime scene. The most important step an author can take is to invest some time in research. While one can glean the basics from various online searches, an author can dig deeper by reading police reports and autopsy findings. Thorough detectives will painstakingly describe their crime scenes and give details that authors can use to enhance the descriptions in their books. Likewise, Medical Examiners use terminology that can be used in dialogue between the lead detective and the coroner.
Another important step an author can take while conducting their research is to have an in-depth conversation with a detective or a forensic technician to gain some insight. Officers and technicians have a unique perspective of the sights, sounds, feelings, and experience of being on scene. This will give an author a more three-dimensional approach, if you will, to their writing and will enhance their crime scene descriptions.
For example, detectives are often irritated the very moment their phones ring. Movies and television shows glamorize a call-out, but in real life, a detective is being dragged away from family in the middle of the night, which more often than not, is far from a pleasant experience. There also can be a great deal of tension on a scene amongst various personnel, particularly in a high-profile case. However, the tension is usually subtle. Knock-down, drag-out fights are rare. So there may be glaring looks exchanged or mumblings uttered more often than heated arguments.
There are complicated “pecking orders” at various departments and the chains of command are often confusing. A forensic supervisor may disagree with the detective or a sergeant about how to process a scene, for example, but will almost always acquiesce to a captain or a major. While it may not always be practical, an author can obtain a plethora of ideas by participating in a ride-along. Most departments allow civilians to ride with a patrol officer or a detective for a day or evening. This way, an author can not only pick the officer’s brain about crime scenes, but also experience some of what a detective or patrol cop does first-hand.
Sue: Are police reports available to the public? If so, where can we find them?
Kim: There are records laws which vary from state to state. Generally speaking, any person may make a public records request. These requests will be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Usually active or open investigations are usually exempt, other than a generic offense report. Reports involving closed investigations are usually released, but some information will be redacted, such as Social Security numbers or other personal identifying information. A person can contact their local or State Police Department and ask for the records department.
Sue: What about autopsy reports? Are they available as well? If so, where?
Kim: Autopsy reports can be obtained either directly from the Medical Examiner’s office or from the police department, as they are usually included in the case file.
Sue: What happens when a Forensic Supervisor disagrees with the lead detective or sergeant? How is it resolved?
Kim: It depends. Sometimes the Criminal Investigations Supervisor — Lieutenant or Captain — will cower. But ultimately, the Criminal Investigations Supervisor has the authority.
Sue: Can you give us a rundown on the pecking order?
Kim: Detective, Captain, Lieutenant Detective, Sergeant, Forensic Supervisor, Forensic Tech, patrol deputy or officer.
Forensic Supervisors are usually civilians, so they wouldn’t be considered “on the force.” There are exceptions where they are sworn in, such as a lieutenant, but generally, Forensic Supervisors are civilian employees, not cops. Unless the Forensic Supervisor is sworn, then he would be a lieutenant.
Sue: So if the Forensic Supervisor is sworn in, he immediately jumps to LT? In that case, who wins the argument if there’s a disagreement on how to run the scene?
Kim: No, he doesn’t immediately jump to Lieutenant. He would be whatever rank he held before. Generally, it would be a lieutenant who would supervise such a unit. The Criminal Investigations Supervisor — Captain or Lieutenant Detective — would always have the authority over a Forensics Supervisor, because ultimately, the Criminal Investigations Division is responsible for the outcome of the investigation.
Sue: How do we go about asking for a ride-along? Are they done at certain times?
Kim: It helps to know someone within the department. Preferably someone who can expedite the request. However, for the most part, anyone can contact either a patrol supervisor or a criminal investigations supervisor to set up a ride-along. The agency will generally accommodate a request for day or night, depending on which the person prefers. Some agencies may require fingerprinting or a background check, depending on their policy.
Sue: While on a ride-along, does the officer limit our exposure to real-life situations? For example, what if a serious crime got called in? Would someone else take the call, or we would we get to tag along?
Kim: Yes. An officer would make sure to not put a civilian in a risky situation, so he or she would either not respond to an active call, or in a dire situation, may even drop the civilian off at a safe location.
Sue: Are crime scene photographers on the force, or are they civilians?
Kim: The forensic technicians are responsible for photographing and videotaping the scenes. Generally, they are civilians.
Sue: When arriving at the scene of a homicide, say, are certain people allowed on scene first? What’s that order look like?
Kim: Usually the first to arrive at a crime scene, other than the complainant, would be the patrol officers and their supervisors. Forensic technicians and detectives are called out. Usually, they arrive within an hour. If it is an unusual or high-profile scene, high-ranking Patrol Supervisors and Criminal Investigations Supervisors will also respond, much to the chagrin of the detective.
Sue: Patrol Supervisors always arrive before detectives?
Kim: Usually a patrol officer is the first to respond. There could be exceptions to that. For example, if a detective went to a house to interview a witness or a suspect and found the person deceased inside the home.
Sue: We often hear about the unmistaken scent of death. Do all dead bodies smell the same? If not, what specifically might change the smell?
Kim: The scent of death is not really going to change that much from person to person, however, the intensity of the smell will. A body that has just been found within a few hours of death will not be very strong, whereas a body that has been delayed for a week or so will emit a scent so strong that a mask is often required. A body that decays inside in a very hot environment are the worst, because the scent lingers and is trapped inside.
Sue: Does the smell get into the fabric of your clothes? When you get home does your spouse smell it, too?
Kim: The stench becomes impregnated in clothing, on shoes, in your hair, etc. Most effective is to immediately strip their clothing and remove their shoes upon entering their home, then immediately put them in a hot wash with bleach. But even with doing that and taking a shower, the stench somehow lingers like pepper spray. It takes about 24 hours for the smell to completely dissipate, whether that is just an olfactory memory or somehow it’s breathed into the body.
I don’t know if spouses smell it or not because mine has never said anything, but that could be out of politeness.
Note from Sue: I asked the same question to a few members of #ACrimeChat. Here’s what they said…
Joe Broadmeadow: “Yes, there was a homicide in a trailer park. Domestic situation. Neighbors heard an argument, then thought it appropriate in polite society to wait a week before reporting an absent boyfriend and missing girlfriend. Seven days in August in an aluminum trailer in 90-degree heat. Could have flown the trailer to the lab with all the flies. When I walked into my house, wearing a suit I picked up the day before from the dry cleaners, my wife made me take it off outside (which scared the neighbors) and put the suit in my unmarked unit for a return to the cleaners.
“Death doth permeate the body of those left behind.”
Adam from Writers Detective: “I’m still newly wed…-ish, so she hasn’t had the experience of that yet. As a matter of daily routine, I tend to go straight into the bathroom to either wash my hands and face or take a shower before giving my wife the “Honey, I’m home” kiss.
“I intentionally try to keep work separate from home.
“When I was a brand new patrol officer working graves, I woke to my then girlfriend putting an open packet of Farley’s brand gummy bears under my nose to wake me. I immediately woke heaving, as the heavy chemical smell of this brand of gummy bears smelled EXACTLY like the chemicals we use with burned decedents before placing them in sealed metal caskets for storage.
“Smell is a powerful memory trigger!”
Scott Cherry (he uses his pen name, William Mack): “I asked my wife, and she said no. I’ve come home after spending an entire day in a double homicide scene and I know I smelled bad, but she never said anything. Most of the time, when I know I had attracted the death stink, I undressed in the laundry room and headed for the shower.”
Sue: Who was your favorite horse? And who takes care of the horses?
Kim: My favorite horse’s name was Guardian. He was a beautiful quarter horse gelding. The mounted officers and volunteers take care of the horses.
Sue: That seems like it would be a great way to get an “in” with your local force…to volunteer to care for horses.
Kim: Yes, volunteering in any part of an agency, or interning, is a great way to get known by the uppers and cops and such.
Kim McGath received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from South Florida University. Her law enforcement background spanned more than a decade in which she worked in the Special Victims Unit, Mounted Patrol, and Criminal Investigations Bureau. The first detective in her unit to discover a clandestine grave without an informant, Kim exhumed the body of a female, which led her on a hunt for an elusive serial killer. She’s received various academic awards, including being recognized by the U. S. Secret Service for her investigation and later recovery of a Kansas fugitive who remained in hiding for over twenty years. In addition, she’s worked high-profile cold cases that received worldwide media attention. Kim is also an author, singer/songwriter, and the married mother of three.