Career Profile: Homicide Detective Interview

Dr. Don Lindley

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a Homicide Detective? Listen as Dr. Don Lindley, Chair of the Criminology Department at Regis University, interviews Jon Priest, (Ret.) Lieutenant in the Homicide Bureau at the Denver Police Department.

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DON LINDLEY: Today we are starting a new program. John, you'll be the first one that we'll be talking to, and the purpose of this is to introduce our young criminology students to careers.

We get the question quite often about what's it like to be a homicide investigator? What's it like to be a child abuse investigator or a police officer? So I decided to start this new program with it.

I'm Don Lindley, Chair of the Criminology Department here at Regis University. And John Priest is our guest and John has guest spoke for me a number of times, I've lost count, at our CSI conference and at the speaker series that we do every year. And so we have some questions for John. Obviously, what's it like to be a homicide investigator? And we'll start out with that John.

JOHN PRIEST: Being a homicide investigator is a lot like being in Colombo or Sherlock Holmes or many of the things that just seen literature or on television. It's that action-pack type of thing that goes with law enforcement.

But that's all Hollywood and actually doing homicide investigation work is not difficult, but requires tenacity, requires some level of dedication, requires passion, in order to be good at it. To really do that.

I talk in ways of people who want to get into law enforcement. And there's all these jobs that are available for people, especially those who are degreed, either Bachelor's, or Master's, or even Doctorate's.

There's lots of work out there for people with education. Yet there are still those with those degrees who want to get into law enforcement and do law enforcement work. What you really have to want to do law enforcement, to number one, get into it and two, be good at it.

Well, if you're in law enforcement, that same thing applies for a homicide investigator. You really have to want to be that homicide investigator. Not just say, I'd like to try that. Because you won't do very well, typically, if you just want to try it. You have to really want to do it.

For me, it began real early in life. My mom always told me she says, you really became what you wanted to be as a child. And I said what are you talking about? She says, well as a kid, you either were Superman or you were Broderick Crawford.

DON LINDLEY: I remember Broderick Crawford from the old television days.

JOHN PRIEST: Exactly. And I loved that show, Highway Patrol. Was the show, Dan Matthews was the character. And Broderick Crawford was the plainclothes, highway patrol investigator that got involved in all those things. I just loved that. I really had a good time doing that sort of thing.

My dad was in the military and spent a lot of his time doing recruiting for other military in the Army. And he also got into the intelligence field and research and things of that nature and it really intrigued me. I think that might have been one of the reasons why I really wanted to follow it along.

DON LINDLEY: And two things, John, that you brought up that I think are important. First, the education of it. I think we're evolving in law enforcement. That education is becoming more and more important.

And second, that you have a genuine interest in what you want to do, whether it's law enforcement or a specialty in law enforcement.

JOHN PRIEST: Yes. I went to work with the Denver Police Department. Denver Police Department required for education a high school diploma or an equivalency. Meaning that you could actually get on the police department without a high school diploma as long as you were able to test out. Show an equivalency.

Which is fine. I think there are very qualified individuals, still today, who work in law enforcement that don't have formal education. Now I'm not saying that that's the route to take. I think that to do this job well, to be able to present something and provide something to the community, because that's really what we're doing in law enforcement, is providing a service to the community, you have to have that education to draw upon.

And in all different areas. History, mathematics, physics, psychology, science, all these things are important. And it doesn't mean you have to grab every one of them, but if you're, for example, if you want to be a child abuse investigator or a homicide investigator, it's probably a good idea to have some psychology in your background.

To really understand how people work, understand behavior, understand that when you look at a crime scene there are things that the crime scene is telling you about the people. Not just that there's a piece of evidence here that may match to someone, but the crime scene itself is telling you something about the people who were involved.

Victims, suspects, and anyone else who may have had contact with them. So those sorts of things can be helpful in your background. If you're looking for something more analytical, then maybe chemistry is something you want to think about. Or genetics, DNA, things of that nature.

But law enforcement is not one of those standalone fields where it's I want to go out, I want to be a homicide investigator, and you think that that job is just out there waiting for somebody to go apply for it. That's not the way it works.

You have to have that foundation that you build on. That foundation comes from beginning as a patrol officer. Just a regular law enforcement officer driving around in that car, stopping people, writing tickets, taking reports, dealing with complaints. Because that builds that foundation for you to be good at the investigative field, regardless of what that is.

DON LINDLEY: I'm really glad you brought that up because, and you're aware of this, a lot of young people think that when I get my degree I'm going to become a homicide investigator and they don't understand that there are steps to that and they are important steps.

You probably learned a lot about being a good investigator by the time that you spend on the street. Right.

JOHN PRIEST: And I like interviewing. I really enjoy interviewing. I do classes on interviewing and interrogation for other law enforcement officers. And they attend these classes and sometimes you see guys, the result is you and I in these classes that are trying to learn how to do better at interviewing and interrogating individuals.

Well that comes from your time working on street. Talking with people, learning how people respond, learning their behaviors, that's where that psychology comes in. And if you have a background in that, you've already got a step up on those that don't have that in their background.

DON LINDLEY: You know as well and you pointed it out, that a GED will get you into many law enforcement agencies and that's fine. So I get the questions a lot from students well, why am I in college then? And I think you did a really good job on answering that.

By those courses that you're talking about, that prepares you better to be a better officer and it's something you could learn that will help you in an oral. To get on the job to begin with.

JOHN PRIEST: If you're looking for, if your career path is promotion, if you want to be a supervisor, if you want to be a command officer, if you want to be the chief of police, then the more you have in your background, the better candidate you are for those positions.

I can tell you that since leaving the police department, I spend a lot time looking at other cases from law enforcement agencies all around the world, mostly in the US, but I look at some cases outside the US as well.

But that said, I find the agencies that have the most difficulty, the ones that have problems that are, some of them very glaring problems, are because the law enforcement officers are not well educated.

I mean, good officers. Good, solid officers for typical law enforcement duties, but when things get more complex, that education is what's going to help you get through that and be able to work through the complexity.

DON LINDLEY: Let's talk just briefly, John, about the most difficult part about being a police officer and being a homicide investigator and then the most rewarding part of both of those professions.

JOHN PRIEST: Difficulties come in a lot of different forms. One is it takes a lot of time. Cases don't just fall on your desk. The typical smoking gun. Television tends to portray homicide investigations as something that is quick and easy because they're all solved in an hour.

Sometimes if it's a real complex case, two hours. That's not the way it works. Most homicide investigations, yeah, we can usually solve them within the first 48 to 72 hours, but think about that.

Two to three days before you start putting something together where you can put somebody in jail. For most agencies, depend on the size of the agency, that may be anywhere from 30% of the cases to 90% of the cases. We're getting that two to three day solution, but then you have that group that falls outside of that.

I mean to where you're going three months, six months, 12 months, years later before you're able to bring resolution to those particular cases. That work is not daunting, but sometimes it can just be gut wrenching because you're putting all this into it.

When you're a patrol officer and you go to work and you get in your police car, and you go out and write a couple tickets, and you take a couple reports, you go home at the end of the night. You sit and you turn the TV on and you relax.

Homicide investigators bring the case home with them because they're constantly thinking about what else can I do. What should I be doing? What haven't I done? What else is there I could possibly think about?

And this is constantly going on and that impacts their relaxation time, impacts their family time, impacts their vacation time. I haven't had a real vacation since probably February of 1999, was the last time I went on a real vacation. Because I'm always doing something with respect to some death investigation.

And that's the kind of dedication I'm talking about. I'm not saying that that's for everybody because it isn't. But I'm also not saying that you can go in and only give a half-hearted attempt at being a good homicide investigator. You really have to want to do this and that's what I go back to.

DON LINDLEY: And let's look at that for a minute too. Being a good, homicide investigator, what are those characteristics? You had mentioned tenacity, but there was dedication there.

JOHN PRIEST: The dedication is a big part. Really wanting to sacrifice other things that may be in your lifestyle. When I would interview perspective law enforcement officers, people who had been on the job for years and done really good work in their various fields, I would interview them and one of questions I would ask is, you know, sometimes you're going to miss Christmases, or you're going to miss your child's birthday, or you're going to miss your anniversary, or you're not going to be able to go on your vacation. So how's that going to effect you?

And almost all of them will respond say, oh, I'll do that, you bet, sign me up. And they're all interested in getting it because they want the job so bad that they're willing to say anything. But I'm not throwing those out lightly when I ask those questions because they're realistic. In that, when I say we need to go, that means we need to go.

We had a homicide case that happened on New Years morning. Big high profile case where I called everybody that would answer the phone into the office. They're missing out their New Year's morning and who knows what they were doing the night before. All these people are in there and they're working and we went for probably three to four days straight, with very little sleep, trying to bring resolution to this particular case and that's the kind of dedication I'm talking about.

DON LINDLEY: We see that on TV, too, and if you'd address that a little bit. What we see on TV and if it really misleads a lot of students or not.

JOHN PRIEST: Television is obviously time compressed because they don't have the ability to portray an actual investigation the way that it would work. Because a lot of times, it's just sitting.

It might be sitting in front of a computer terminal. It might be sitting on the telephone talking to somebody. It might be pouring through pages and pages of documents. It might be sitting outside a room waiting for somebody to bring you a piece of paper. This is what investigation is. It's not leaping, hopping, and skipping.

I can tell you that most of my homicide investigators wouldn't need to carry a gun if it wasn't required by law enforcement. Because that's one of things we do because we never get into those situations where the guns are going to have to come out.

We're going to end up pointing it to somebody. That somebody else's job as far as doing that. We rarely put handcuffs on anybody because we're doing the work that gives the ability to others in law enforcement. Others on our team to go out and make these things happen.

DON LINDLEY: So that's kind of the misleading part of criminal justice-type programs. That they not only are getting it done in minutes, but they're also shooting out with the suspect.

JOHN PRIEST: I look at some of these cases. There are officers that have three or four shootings an episode. I'm thinking to myself, holy cow. If that was true, if officers were doing that routinely, they wouldn't be in the front lines any more. They'd be working somewhere where they're just outside the eye side of the administration.

I look at TV shows like Quincy, you know, where he does it all, or CSI, where they do it all. These are team efforts. There are no stars. There are no single stars. These are team efforts and you have to depend on that team in order to bring that success.

DON LINDLEY: That's important for young people to understand too. That's one of the primary components that I would like to get across. That it is a team. It isn't one person that solves the whole thing and goes home at night. It just doesn't happen.

JOHN PRIEST: I can tell you that there are, occasionally, a case where an investigator does such good work that had they not done that resolution for that case, it probably wouldn't have come as quickly as it did. Doesn't mean it would never have come, but wouldn't have come as quickly as it did.

So there are those instances where those lone individuals play such a significant role to the case, but they're still not the ones that are processing that crime scene for you. I mean you're not out there taking the pictures and collecting the evidence.

You're taking notes and you're going down and conducting maybe one of several interviews. And then you're putting your information down onto a piece of paper and someone else is collating that into a case book. And so all these things require teamwork. The solution rate often depends on how you work with others that are on that team.

DON LINDLEY: I get, John, a lot from students that are trying to get into law enforcement and have so many disappointments because, as you know, it's hard to get on jobs. What advice would you give a person that really wants to be a police officer?

JOHN PRIEST: Well, certainly you have to think about your background. I mean this is one of those things that they're really going to scrutinize you. Just take a look at any political election and how the media will go into somebody's background and talk about well you did this when you were a teenager. Or you did this when you were seven.

Law enforcement is much like that. They're really looking at what have you done in your life? I mean, what types of things are going to be problematic for you? So you have to think about what your lifestyle is.

But, once you've made a decision, that, you know, I've had a good life, I've got a good education and I really have a desire to get into law enforcement, then continue with that. And if you're looking at one agency and that agency says well, you know, we're full up. We're probably not going to hire for the next three or four years. Then look somewhere else.

Don't be afraid to look at those other agencies. Don't just pick some place and say I really want to go work for Denver or I really want to work for Aurora. Well, how about Omaha, Nebraska? How about Dallas, Texas?

Sometimes, well, do you want to move? Well, if you don't, well then you're probably stuck with waiting. But if you really want to get into law enforcement sometimes have to look where the law enforcement jobs are.

DON LINDLEY: I'm glad to hear that I used that speech on a lot of young people who want it. And they have. They just applied to Denver and I've said, have you thought about Las Vegas? Have you thought about California? And it's news to them. So that's good advice.

The other thing is it's much easier to move from the Los Angeles Police Department to the Denver Police Department through a lateral program than it is to get it to either one of those agencies fresh. So if I walk in the door and I fill out that application, then I sit and wait to go through the process, well, I might get on, I might not get on this particular round.

But if I'm already in law enforcement, getting into a lateral transfer program is usually much, much easier.

DON LINDLEY: OK that's good advice. Let's close just by a question that I alluded to earlier and it would be good if you could answer this about homicide again and what's the pleasure in it? What's the joy in it? When do you get the most reward out of it? And I suppose it's putting the bad guy in jail, but there's got to be other parts of it.

JOHN PRIEST: Some of it is the intricacies of the investigation. There are so many different things that you can look at. So much out there that you learn about. The behaviors of people. The way that certain things occur.

I really enjoy looking at blood stain patterns. I really like reconstructing shooting scenes. I really like understanding the dynamics of the crime scene. I like dealing with the behaviors of individuals that are interviewed.

Those are very enjoyable for me and that's part of that homicide drive. That passion. Additionally, it's the sense that you're doing something for people who can't speak for themselves.

They have no ability to go into court and sit on the stand in a court room and tell their story because they were killed. And that becomes my responsibility. I get to tell their story. And tell what happened to them.

And that's a big, big responsibility because nobody else is going to do that for them. Other than something else like me. We're the ones that are going to bring that home for them.

I remember a case. There was a three-year-old child who was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. And it was years later, and we solved the case, but it was years later that there was another young male who was shot in a drive-by shooting.

And they were doing a kind of, not a march, but a gathering of individuals, to try to raise awareness to try to solve this particular case. And I was part of that because I was the commander of the homicide unit, the major crimes section, and I was out there at the scene, and it's just being available in case new information came out or whatever.

And a lady walks up to me and she grabs my hand with both her hands and she just holds onto my hand. I said, how are you? She says, you don't remember me, do you? I said, no I don't. And she says I'm so and so's mother. And it was the three-year old who was killed.

She says I just wanted to thank you because your work and your effort, it was over Christmas and we spent that whole Christmas season working on that case for resolutions, and she's out there supporting another family.

And it was one of those kind of things that I was never expecting that or seeking that. But that type of reward makes it all really worth it. This is why we do this. This is what we're doing it for.

DON LINDLEY: OK I think that's a good place to leave this. We thank you for watching and we'll be doing some more of these in the near future. Thanks John.

JOHN PRIEST: Thank you.

Check back soon as Dr. Lindley will be interviewing more professionals in the field. This is a great way to hear the ins and outs of professions applicable to criminology graduates.

Learn more about earning a criminology degree at Regis University. Call us at 877.820.0581 to speak with an admissions counselor. Or, request information or visit our resource center to gain more insight on the criminology and criminal justice industry.

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