Best Practices to Improve Nonfatal Shooting Investigations in Utica, New York

“Show me the crime scene report,” Detective Skaggs demands. Two homicide detectives’ eyes widen, and in unison, they scramble through the plastic bin containing a recently closed homicide investigation file. The investigators quickly crosstalk:

“Could it be on the Lieutenant’s desk?”

“No, check that last folder.”

Det. Skaggs repeats the question, more sternly this time, “Where is the crime scene report? Didn’t I ask for the crime scene report?” After five minutes the search is called off.

Det. John Skaggs runs a tight ship at the Los Angeles, California Police Department (LAPD) based on two principles: organization and hustle. Those principles built the foundation of his 30-year career with the LAPD, during which he served as the lead detective on 165 murder investigations and supervised an additional 250. Now nearing retirement, Det. Skaggs has teamed up with the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) to share his extensive experience by delivering homicide investigation and violent crime reduction training across the country.

Det. Skaggs’ principles are on display in his “murder book”: a three-ring binder filled with information on each homicide investigation he has conducted. When taking the stand, or reviewing an investigation, he knows exactly where to turn for every piece of information. He believes that the only way to establish this level of expertise is for investigators to live and breathe every detail of the case. This credo is drilled into the audience of law enforcement personnel: investigations are conducted in the field, on people’s doorsteps, and in living rooms – not in an office. Every witness is talked to not once, not twice, but until there is no doubt that every piece of information has been revealed.

Sharing Best Practices for Nonfatal Shooting Investigations

In fall 2016, the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, in a joint project with the Utica, New York Police Department (PD) and the Oneida County, New York District Attorney’s Office, requested assistance from BJA NTTAC to help improve clearance rates of nonfatal shootings. While homicide investigations were being cleared at the national average rate (61.5 percent, according to the 2015 Uniform Crime Reporting Program), nonfatal shooting investigations – shootings with a surviving victim – were experiencing a much lower rate of success.

Det. Skaggs’ goal for his May visit to Utica is two-fold: instill his best practices into Utica’s investigation procedures and give the officers new tools and strategies to increase success across all investigations. He begins day one by discussing the traits of a good detective. Some of those skills are ‘soft’: persistence, motivation, likeability, compassion, and innovation. ‘Hard’ skills are equally, if not more, important for effective investigations: time management and meticulous organization.  

Once those skills are established, investigative tradecraft takes over. The detectives in the training are well-versed in traditional techniques, and innovative uses of technology have expanded the tools available. For instance, the department is currently required to present interviewees with written Miranda waivers before an investigative discussion can occur. Other states allow for a simple reading of the rights, or even a more informal explanation of an interviewee’s rights, as long as the proceedings are captured on audio recording. This enables investigators to frame an interrogation as a conversation, rather than a formal proceeding, creating more space for relationship-building and candid statements. While there is initial pushback in the room on the feasibility of adopting such a practice, Det. Skaggs is insistent that it’s a policy worth pursuing. 

Promoting Collaboration Across Partners to Conduct Investigations

“I may sound demanding, but [law enforcement officers] like when they get results,” states District Attorney Kristin Trutanich, Det. Skaggs’ co-presenter from the Los Angeles County, California District Attorney’s Office. Ms. Trutanich has been a Deputy District Attorney prosecuting violent crimes for 12 years, and has spent the last four assigned to the Hardcore Gang Division focusing on gang murders. She knows better than anyone what it takes to obtain a conviction. While she is speaking, detectives sit on the left side of the room and prosecutors sit on the right, indicative of a recurring divide she has seen across the country. Ms. Trutanich’s presentation focuses on the importance of a holistic investigative model. Her message: “A good cop thinks like a district attorney. A better cop thinks like a defense attorney. The best cop thinks like the jury.”

This relationship goes both ways. She encourages the district attorneys to integrate themselves with law enforcement and the community so that they can better anticipate and respond to investigative challenges. Ms. Trutanich also stresses the importance of pushing forward with innovative investigation and courtroom tactics that have been accepted in other states, such as the recording of jail conversations and phone calls. She warns that judges may be hesitant to adopt new methods at first, but can be persuaded through appropriate case law citations and persistence. With judicial approval, detectives can add valuable new tactics to their investigative repertoire, such as jailhouse informant operations, implied Miranda waivers, and one-party consent recorded environments.

Following the three-day training, Det. Skaggs and Ms. Trutanich compile their recommendations and next steps for the department into an assessment report. The assessment team is encouraged by the dedication, commitment, and high level of enthusiasm that the investigators and district attorneys have for their respective agencies and the community as a whole. Nevertheless, stretched resources and restrictions on investigative tactics at the state and local level can negatively impact the ability of both investigators and district attorneys to seek justice for those affected by violent crime. Therefore, in order to successfully investigate and prosecute violent crime, all levels of government must be fully committed to working together, adopting national best practices, and welcoming innovative strategies to identify what works for their communities. Relationship-building is at the core of that effort, and Det. Skaggs and Ms. Trutanich believe that the Utica PD has what it takes to get the job done.

If your jurisdiction is in need of training or technical assistance related to nonfatal shooting investigations, or if you know of a community that would benefit from this type of assistance, please contact BJA NTTAC at nttac@bjatraining.org.

If you are interested in submitting the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration in a future TTA Today blog post or in obtaining information related to a particular topic area, please email us at nttac@bjatraining.org.