Contributed by the National Public Safety Partnership Team, U.S. Department of Justice.

Background

Callout Box on the West Memphis Police Department: 80 sworn officers, 22 civilian employees, and within the Investigations Unit: 1 lieutenant, 1 sergeant, and 5 detectives.In 2015, the West Memphis, Arkansas Police Department (WMPD) began working with what is now known as the National Public Safety Partnership (PSP) to develop a violence reduction strategy. PSP provides a framework for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to enhance its support of state, tribal, and local law enforcement officers and prosecutors in the investigation, prosecution, and deterrence of violent crime, especially crime related to gun violence, gangs, and drug trafficking. PSP directly engages with cities to prioritize DOJ resources based upon local violence reduction strategic plans. Like many other law enforcement agencies, WMPD faced challenges with victim and witness cooperation, a key element of the investigative process, and sought to improve its investigative capacity. Through the PSP program, WMPD requested assistance from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Training and Technical Assistance Center (NTTAC) to assess its investigations unit and ensure that the unit operated in line with national best practices.

Assessment

Through BJA NTTAC, Mr. Brian Russell, a subject matter expert (SME) with the Institute for Intergovernmental Research (IIR), reviewed the unit’s policies and procedures and worked with WMPD command staff to identify its specific needs. The commander of the investigations unit, Captain Joe Baker, and Mr. Russell determined that the unit’s policies and procedures were solidly based on best practices and that the personnel assigned to the unit were committed to WMPD and their community; however, procedural obstacles hindered prosecution efforts, and investigators assigned to the unit had fewer than three years of service on average with WMPD. As a result of the assessment, Mr. Russell recommended two training focal points to support WMPD’s particular goals:

  1. Provide baseline training to first responders to major crime scenes.
  2. Establish a common training foundation for the investigations unit.

Training

Callout Box on Major Crime Scene Preliminary Investigations Workshop Topics: Evaluating Major Crime Scenes; Understanding the Roles of Patrol Officers and Patrol Sergeants; Containing Major Crime Scenes; Protecting Evidence; and Securing Victims, Witnesses, and Suspects.

Based on assessment results and in collaboration with Captain Baker, Mr. Russell and a team of SMEs customized the curricula for a Major Crime Scene Preliminary Investigation Workshop and an Investigation Management Workshop. The SME team included experienced practitioners and experts in investigations, prosecution, forensics, and investigation management. 

The Major Crime Scene Preliminary Investigation Workshop was developed to improve the level of knowledge, communication, and collaboration involved in responding to and managing major crime scenes. The course addresses the concerns of law enforcement personnel at multiple levels and is designed to reach frontline officers who serve as the critical preliminary investigators at major crime scenes. The workshop focuses on national best practices, techniques, responsibilities, and principles for managing crime scenes, as well as tactics and strategies applied during the initial phases of an investigation. A key focus of the effort at WMPD was reinforcing and sustaining the crime scene response training across the agency. To meet this objective, the training was presented in a train-the-trainer format.

Callout Box on Investigation Management Workshop Topics: Organizational Characteristics; Roles and Responsibilities; Crime Scene Documentation; Crime Scene Investigation Evidence Handling; Witness Pitfalls and Precautions; Community Engagement; Victim/Witness Coordination; Investigative Function/Intelligence Enhancement; Case Reviews; Interviews and Interrogations; Courtroom Preparation; and Constitutional Legal Issues and Concerns.

The Investigation Management Workshop was designed to enhance the quality of investigation functions and increase clearance rates for violent crimes. Participants were introduced to best practices and successful approaches for managing investigations, including innovative strategies to promote effective investigations; methods for preventing and combating witness intimidation; practical experiences from agencies highlighted in the curriculum; and discussions on the latest developments in the investigative function. The workshop featured an in-depth interview-and-interrogations session and emphasized communication between WMPD and the State Prosecutor’s Office. During the workshop, a prosecutor from the State Prosecutor’s Office answered questions and clarified misunderstandings about procedures that had hindered successful prosecutions. The participation of the State Prosecutor’s Office enabled both agencies to outline their respective needs and then resolve any recurring roadblocks to the prosecution process.

Preliminary Outcomes

Under the leadership of Chief Donald Oakes, WMPD implemented several aspects of the assessment and the training, even as the project was unfolding. For example, a major crime scene response checklist was developed and implemented in the field following the assessment and prior to training delivery, improving the quality and consistency of WMPD’s response. WMPD has also initiated a training academy that helps to establish the department’s uniform response to major crime scenes through the train-the-trainer resources. In addition, WMPD had been evaluating how the department could use social media to enhance relationships and information sharing with the community. Accordingly, as part of the Investigation Management Workshop, trainers highlighted how social media could be used to support major crime investigations. The workshops developed for WMPD also emphasized the importance of crime analysis and supported WMPD’s decision to add an analyst position to the investigations unit.

Following the success of the investigation workshops, Captain Baker encourages other agencies to learn more about the training and technical assistance (TTA) opportunities designed to support violent crime investigations that are available through BJA NTTAC: “Explore each option with an open mind. […] I find that there are components in other programs that we can leverage to enhance our initiatives.”

About the Institute for Intergovernmental Research

On behalf of BJA and BJA NTTAC, IIR delivers TTA services for law enforcement agencies seeking to improve the quality of their violent crime investigations and increase clearance rates, such as through the practical application of evidence-based practices identified through BJA’s Homicide Process Mapping: Best Practices for Increasing Homicide Clearances project. IIR’s violent crime- and homicide-related TTA services include assessments of investigative functions, peer exchange site visits, training for first responders to major crime scenes, and training on investigations management. For additional information, please contact Ms. Gina Hartsfield at ghartsfield@iir.com.

To submit the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration to be featured in a future BJA NTTAC TTA Spotlight, please email nttac@bjatraining.org.

If your agency or community is interested in major crime scenes and investigation management or violent crime reduction, or would like to apply for technical assistance, please contact BJA NTTAC at nttac@bjatraining.org to discuss your unique criminal justice needs.