This started out as a simple response to a guest post from PekoeBlaze on Ryan Lanz’s A Writer’s Path on the subject of writing futuristic sci-fi detective stories. It then morphed into something else, and became way too long to clutter up Ryan’s page.
So, let’s first get some clear distinctions of who does what in a real life homicide case because this is the foundation of what each character will be doing. What is probably worth noting is how solving serious crimes these days (and therefore probably in the future) is becoming less a job for one or two cops (as usually portrayed in film, TV & print) and more about the whole team – some of whom may work out of the same office (which may or may not be a permanent fixture) and others who only appear for specific briefings, or who are only involved via phone or email.
I’ve had the good fortune to work as an intelligence analyst on several homicides so have a bit of an insight as to how things can go. I will lay out a sketch of personnel and roles from the case with which I had the most involvement (about 10 yrs ago). In this specific case, the cops knew who had done it, but needed to gather the evidence and build the case to prove it. I’m British so you’ll have to try and get your heads around UK ranks. The exact manpower deployed will depend on available resources and importance of the case (homicides trump most things; analysts may be brought in on serial offences but are unlikely to focus on a single mugging).
There will be a senior investigating officer (SIO) such as a Detective Superintendent, or more likely a DCI – Detective Chief Inspector, who calls the shots. They build the team and allocate tasks. Think of them as the general but who will still dig into key details.
The DCI will then have a Detective Inspector (DI) or two and below them a couple of Detective Sergeants (DS). These guys are the interface between the DCI and the rest of the team and stand in for the DCI at briefings.
They allocate specific tasks to several DCs (Detective Constables) who are standard rank police officers with extra training. They go out and take witness statements and generally pull all the information together. They are the grunts. One of the DCs will be allocated to be a Family Liaison Officer who is there to support the victim’s family (a very interesting but demanding role). Uniformed cops may help out with house-to-house enquiries.
Then there are the police staff (i.e. not sworn officers of the law) who provide a range of support roles such as entering witness statements onto computer, cross-referencing them etc. The forensics team will be from a completely different specialist department and will deploy a range of techniques that are becoming more and more the stuff of science fiction. As an aside, it looks great fun, there are loads of university courses in it, but it ain’t particularly well-paid. CSI [Insert City Name Here] has caused a glut of keen young forensics experts and it’s a buyer’s market and Police Forces have no money.
And then there’s the Analyst (usually prefixed with ‘Intelligence’ or ‘Crime’). My involvement could be as simple as doing a bit of spreadsheet work with telephone numbers (who called whom and when). Or, as in this particular case, looking through all of the witness statements and phone records and CCTV footage and producing a visual timeline of events on computer. And producing an association chart (a kind of extended family tree including friendships and animosities). And a map showing the exact movements of the killer immediately before and after the murder. And a map of cell activity from the suspect’s phone around the time of the murder. All of which I presented to the DCI and the DI / DS team (printed out – the cops still like things they can hold in their hands, rather than flashy animations).
If we were missing something, they would deploy the DCs to go and see if they could find it (CCTV, witness statements, unidentified people, phone records, suspicious vehicles, etc. etc.) and then I would add the pieces to the jigsaw. The DCI paid close attention to what I was producing as it was a reasonable snap-shot of what we knew and what we could prove.
We then presented my analysis to the prosecuting lawyer who later referred to various pieces in court. I could have been called as a witness but luckily wasn’t (the defence either accepts your findings or tries to make out that you’re an incompetent idiot, looking for any slip up).
All very interesting, you might think, but what does it mean when it comes to writing detective fiction?
1) At the very start of a case nobody knows anything – confusion and supposition rule!
2) After a day or so, the DCI/DI may have a pretty good idea of most of the facts and a gut feeling of where the case is going – good human emotional response!
3) The DCs doing the donkey work do not decide what they do next – the jobs are allocated to them by DCI/DI/DS. A DC doing their own thing (for whatever reasons / intentions) may be taken off the case – good source of conflict!
4) The DCs will do most of the interviews and witness statements with the DI/DS getting involved with the more important ones. The key thing here is that they will understand how various people tick – they are much more useful as psychological & emotional investigators than data crunchers. Do not let these characters loose with gadgets and tech – they work the human side of the story. They will discover things in conversation and in unexpected interactions.
5) The analysts and forensics experts dig through their material looking for gems, holes and oddities. They will deploy the weird sci-fi techniques but have almost no interaction with anyone except the lead officers or specialist liaison officers (some DC may be nominated to act as a conduit). They will spot anomalies or interesting threads to pull (e.g. why does our main suspect call this number five times the week before the murder but never again – could be nothing or…?). This means that there’s great opportunity to highlight the differences between the cops who deal with people and the analysts/techs who deal with things. And also an opportunity to throw them into each other’s worlds.
I hope that’s given a bit of useful background info that should assist in creating a workable team with specific roles, skills and motivations. And I hope that things haven’t changed too much in the ten years since I was last involved in this specific line of work! 🙂