“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller
Welcome back! Blogging is an entirely new and foreign experience for me. In trying to get a foothold in this new communication arena, I plan to follow the path of old Irish proverb: “If you don’t know the way, walk slowly.” So, I will write about what I have learned and experienced during my life. Some of it is entertaining; some of it happy, funny, or sad, but hopefully you will discover a lesson or two in the storytelling. One of my main themes will revolve around teamwork, including some lessons learned, and how your experiences can build confidence that translate into leadership.
I enjoy nothing more than being part of a team. I don’t care if it is a pickup game of basketball, building a start-up company, working in a hospital to save lives and heal bodies, or collaborating with the help of others to write a book. Individual efforts and successes are certainly things to be proud of and celebrated, but for me, the feeling I get from accomplishing something as part of a team is more satisfying and rewarding.
From the time we are old enough to play with other kids, we learned about the value of doing things together. We found out that sharing was the first step to making friends. As we grew older, teamwork focused more on playing on sports teams or joining clubs with specific purposes like science, math, or foreign languages. We proudly wore the laundry that identified us as being part of those teams. We bragged about coaches and mentors who guided us by sharing their expertise and knowledge. They taught us how to improve and move forward stronger and smarter than before. They also taught us about winning, losing, and sportsmanship. For the most part these were great experiences.
Growing up in a large family in an inner-city neighborhood swarming with kids my age, all I ever knew was teamwork. In my case, it was sharing one bathroom with eight others and conserving hot water for the next person’s shower. At the supper table, it was about passing a platter of pork chops and a bucket of mashed potatoes and making sure that I left enough for my siblings before hoping for a second helping. Outside of home, it was how to work together with my neighborhood buddies, by learning to play one position on the team even when you wanted to play another one. I had no idea at the time that through these interactions I was learning lessons that would formulate the way I lived my personal and professional life. I remember little of what my teachers taught me inside a classroom, but I can recall much of what I learned outside of it.
While playing and working among others from outside my regular comfort zone, I learned from and about people with backgrounds that were foreign and different from mine. Sometimes our lives varied by a little and other times by a lot. And, I grew smarter and a bit richer with every encounter, all of which has served me well, and is undoubtedly, why I have loved my career so much.
Like my Dad, community service beckoned me because it seemed fresh, exciting, and never boring. I knew I wanted to make a difference. As a young man, I certainly didn’t envision the difficult and emotional end of the business, or the depth of responsibilities and the reliance on others just to make it through a regular workday.
I rapidly discovered that police officers, like firefighters and other emergency personnel, have no choice but to be the consummate team players. You literally have to rely on one another for backup and security on almost every call for service. In my years as an academy instructor, we drilled the theme into recruit’s heads from day one. We chanted, “You are my back-up … be there for me,” in troop formations, morning physical training and in drills or scenarios where group participation was required. It’s a powerful message that becomes more meaningful as your career progresses. Lone wolves do exist in policing, but their colleagues shun and often shame them.
In law enforcement, there is no shortage of teams. Some occur naturally, while others are selected groups. For instance, the primary team is always your department, and the second is the people on your shift; the folks you rely on for support with every radio call.
In smaller departments, it is less likely to find specialty teams, and an officer is more of a generalist wearing one uniform, but many hats during every shift. In larger departments, there might be full-time assignments to detective units, traffic divisions, and specialty teams such as SWAT, Hostage Negotiation, Underwater Recovery, Accident Reconstruction, and Homicide.
I can’t leave out the athletic teams and the competitions between departments. Those events are highly competitive and territorial, like high school battles all over again. You are fighting for your department and your community and the right to put a championship trophy in the lobby of your barracks or station. They are huge sources of pride.
The strength of teamwork in a homicide investigation
In my personal and admittedly biased opinion, a homicide investigation is the ultimate team effort. It is one where people from different disciplines come together in a sudden, unexpected, unplanned moment and join as one to investigate the sudden, unexpected and somewhat unplanned death of an individual.
Rarely do any of us have previous knowledge of the decedent. However, they were someone known and loved by others. Our responsibility is to find and bring the murderer to justice. We cannot bring the dead back to life, nor will our work completely “bring closure” for a family, but it may bring some small measure of comfort and satisfaction knowing that a team of people cared enough to work on their behalf to avenge the loss of life of their friend or family member.
What makes these teams interesting is that the size and make-up varies based on the facts and circumstances. The team begins to form instantly. There are no tryouts, and generally, you don’t get to pick the players. The selection process differs from a more traditional team where, for example, the number of players and their set positions are pre-determined by the rules of the game.
The core section of an investigative team is representatives from the prosecutor’s office, including lawyers and investigators, and officers from the police department where the death occurred, or the discovery of the body. There is also participation from the coroner or medical examiner’s office and the state or local crime lab. From this point the team will expand based on the nature of the crime, the known or needed information and the evidence sought or recovered.
For instance, if firearms were involved there would be a need for a ballistician, if arson or explosions were a part of the crime, there would be experts from the fire marshal’s office or an investigator from the local fire department. The need to explore the content of computers, mobile phones, and other electronics requires the technical assistance of the Cyber Units or private companies and their specialized software. The team will mine through volumes of information in emails, texts, google searches, etc., for nuggets that help advance the case with new areas to explore and people to interview. Crime lab technicians are added to the team to document, preserve, and remove potential evidence for testing. Depending on the test results, there could be a need for experts with a specific science background needed to clarify the discoveries. This all takes time, and the wait can be frustrating, but we have to keep in mind that as important as the findings are to us, our case is just another one in the que for the scientist, and other investigative teams are waiting for their results as well.
There is an accordion-like effect in all cases where the intensity of the investigation and the size of the team is wide open and full throttle one day and tightly compacted and minimal the next. Done correctly, investigations go on for days, weeks, or months. It is all dependent on the flow of information, testing results, legal procedures, etc. Furthermore, the time from indictment to trial is ordinarily a year or more and it is common to have more than a dozen “team members” testify about their role in the investigation.
In future blog entries and in my upcoming book, When the Smoke Cleared, I will write about cases that will better define and explain in detail the human aspects and team collaborations in death investigations.
Photo credit: “pexels” at Pixabay.com