Palm Bay (Fla.) Police Department
Killers have murdered and tried to cover their sins every since Cain struck Abel and tried to hide it from God. In mystery novels, murder looms as that shadowy threshold heroes and villains must confront. Hunting down these Cains has captured the imagination of readers since man first put ink to paper. And homicide investigations have become to crime fiction what guitars have become to country music—indispensable.
What goes through the minds of those called to investigate these horrendous crimes? And how does one approach a crime scene to investigate the murder of another?
Detective Mark Mynheir visits us today from Palm Bay Police Department (PBPD), an agency located midway on Florida’s east coast. Mark is a man of many talents currently assigned as a homicide investigator with PBPD’s Criminal Investigations Unit. He also served as a member of the department’s SWAT team, with prior experience as a narcotics agent and a patrol officer.
Mark also has another talent. He is a gifted writer with four published novels under his belt and all with a common thread—cops as protagonists. (Check his web site at http://markmynheir.com/ for more information about him and his novels, Rolling Thunder, From the Belly of the Dragon, The Void, and his latest, The Night Watchmen).
Today, we’ll focus on Mark’s experiences as a homicide investigator.
MARK YOUNG: Mark, thanks for joining us once again. Could you fill us in on some of the blanks in your resume we’ve missed? How long with PBPD? What led you to a law enforcement career? How long have you worked in CIU?
MARK MYNHEIR: Thanks for having me, Mark. I’ve been with PBPD for almost twenty-one years. I was with the Cocoa Beach Police Department for two years before that. I’ve been a detective for about twelve years now, mostly working homicides and violent crimes. I also did a three-and-a-half year stint as a narcotics agent and was on our S.W.A.T. Team for a while.
I got into law enforcement because I was getting out of the Marine Corps and didn’t have a job. All my Marine buddies were becoming cops, so I thought I’d give it a try. I wasn’t that enthusiastic about it until I applied for the academy. After that, I knew it was going to be my career.
MARK YOUNG: Let’s focus on your latest assignment as a homicide investigator. Many of our blog readers are readers and writers of crime fiction, so we’d like to get a little insight into the mind of an investigator. Let’s start with getting the call. How are callouts assigned in your department? How are investigative teams comprised?
MARK MYNHEIR: Unfortunately, there are only four of us in the Major Crimes Unit, so when a homicide happens, we’re all called out. We try to rotate the responsibility of being the Lead Investigator, but it doesn’t always work that way. People go on vacations or are at schools. I once caught three in a row in a two week time period. I was exhausted, to say the least.
MARK YOUNG: What starts to click in your mind when you start to respond to one of these calls?
MARK MYNHEIR: After the coffee (which is the important first step), I make a mental check list of what I need to do—witness statements, potential search warrants, or phone subpoenas. I will generally have a vague idea what has happened from dispatch or the sergeant at the scene who has called. I then whip out some phone calls to the rest of the team to get them to the scene.
MARK YOUNG: In many departments, a dead body call is forwarded to homicide investigators from patrol based upon certain criteria—unattended death (physician was not involved in providing medical care), questionable circumstances surrounding the death, or an investigation larger than patrol might be able to handle. What are be some of the determining factors in your department that might jump a dead body call from patrol investigating and closing the case to CIU investigators stepping in?
MARK MYNHEIR: With our department, it has to be a case where the deceased has no significant medical history in which a doctor would sign the death certificate, and/or there’s obvious trauma or suspicious circumstances—like apparent suicides. We wouldn’t investigate a Hospice situation.
MARK YOUNG: As you arrive at the scene, how do you prioritize what needs to be done? For example, who do you need to contact right away and who do you wait to call? How do you determine the size and scope of the crime scene? Do you have field technicians available to process the scene? How do you handle witnesses? What kind of things do you start taking a closer look at?
MARK MYNHEIR: When I arrive, I meet with the first responding officers and get briefed from there. I like to wait until I have another detective or two on scene before I interview witnesses, so we can make a plan. But, like many things in law enforcement, it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes I have to jump in and start talking with people right away.
We start with the initial witnesses (like the person who discovered the body and such) and work our way out. I like to have neighborhood contacts done as soon as possible. Sometimes we’ll call in burglary detectives or our tack team to help us if we need it. Our Crime Scene Unit will respond, and we’ll have a sit down with them and make a plan how to approach the scene—because each one is different. I will then try to stay out of their way after that. They need the time to conduct a methodical search and documentation of the scene.
The newer technology is helpful here because we all carry digital recorders, and I record every statement with witnesses at the scene, so I don’t forget or miss something, and I don’t have to take the witnesses back to the station.
MARK YOUNG: We have all heard the first forty-eight hours are critical in these kinds of investigations. Is time really critical? If so, why?
MARK MYNHEIR: There’s only a short amount of time to collect evidence and track down leads before they disappear forever. So, yes, time is critical in a homicide case. The forty-eight hour rule is pretty solid, but I think it applies more to the collection of evidence than to having a person in custody. In much larger departments where they can have several homicides in a day, the forty-eight hour rule is a little more rigid because if the case isn’t solved in that time, it will go cold because they have to move on to the next homicide. They’re really only able to triage cases.
We’re fortunate where I work because we get enough homicide cases to gain good experience, but we don’t have so many that we are overwhelmed. So if we don’t have the suspect in custody after two days, we can still work on it for weeks or months—whatever it takes to get the bad guy.
MARK YOUNG: I remember during my time in law enforcement, one of the hardest tasks I faced was investigating crimes against children. Trying to keep my mind focused on the task at hand, and not let my feelings get in the way of doing the job. On a personal level, Mark, how do you handle the brutality of these crimes? How do you deal with the emotional impact these crimes naturally impose on people?
MARK MYNHEIR: It’s tough at times. Anyone who says that investigating horrific crimes day after day doesn’t bother them is either lying or in serious denial. I’m very fortunate that I have a great wife and kids who understand the pressures of the job, but even more importantly, my faith in Christ is what keeps me going. God is in control and has a plan for everything that is happening. I’ve seen the worst kind of evil that one person can do to another, and if I didn’t know that God was in control, I would have went loopy a long time ago.
MARK YOUNG: Along the same lines, many departments—whose officers have faced a particularly horrendous situation such as a brutal crime scene or officer-involved shootings—require their personnel to seek clearance from mental health professionals before returning to work. How does your department handle these situations? Are they mandatory or optional? Does it depend on the circumstances?
MARK MYNHEIR: All of our officers involved in shootings must have a mandatory psychological evaluation. I think it’s a good thing. All too often in the past, they just tossed the officer back out on the streets without any real understanding of what happened or how to deal with the aftermath. That attitude contributed to many officers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I think we’re all a bit wiser now.
MARK YOUNG: A unique investigation in any police department is that of an officer involved shooting—either officers as victims, or officers forced to use deadly force in the performance of their duties. Now, we’ve seen on the big screen where our hero officer has shot up the town trying to kill the bad guy. In the next scene, the officer is back on duty, loading up his magazines for the next event. What really happens in these situations?
MARK MYNHEIR: They’re not loading up the magazines for another run, that’s for sure. As soon as the incident is over, the officer is relieved of duty and will give a formal statement within twenty-four hours. The officer’s weapon is collected and pictures are taken. Statements are taken from witnesses and other officers involved. Each incident is different, but on average, the officer won’t be back to normal duty for several weeks until the investigation is complete.
MARK YOUNG: We know these officer-involved investigations are very complicated and sensitive. In general terms, how are these types of investigations handled in your department? Is there a county or regional protocol? Is the district attorney’s or prosecutor’s office a part of the investigating team? Are these cases investigated by another agency?
MARK MYNHEIR: We have an agreement with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate all of our officer involved shootings. FDLE then turns those findings over to the State’s Attorney’s Office for a review. I think it’s good to have an outside agency investigate. It gives the public confidence that the incident is being thoroughly investigated, and it doesn’t pit officers from the same agency in adversarial roles against each other.
If the suspect survives the shooting, our unit is responsible with charging him/her with the appropriate crime. FDLE only deals with the officer’s involvement.
MARK YOUNG: Help us understand what the officer must be going through in these officer-involved cases. What’s going through the officer’s mind during these events?
MARK MYNHEIR: During the incident, it usually goes something like this: please, God, let me live to see my kids! Then, when the smoke clears and everything is finished and the officer survives, and it looks like the entire department has shown up at the scene—Chief and all the brass, too. At that point, the officer is afraid of losing his job or being prosecuted, even when he knows he did everything right. It’s a terrifying situation. The news media is rarely kind to officers in this situation as well. The coverage usually alludes to or flat out states that the officer has done something wrong and is being investigated. The average officer involved in a fatal shooting is out of law enforcement within five years. That’s tragic. It’s nothing like TV.
MARK YOUNG: How is the officer treated in these kinds of investigations? Years ago in our department, the first supervisor at the scene of an officer-involved shooting was required to strip the involved officers of all their weapons. We changed the policy for a number of reasons. How does your department handle these kinds of situations?
MARK MYNHEIR: We used to do the same thing, but we have learned our lessons too, unfortunately, the hard way. Many years ago, one of our officers was involved in a shooting and the line supervisors took his gun and placed him in the back of a patrol car—like he was a criminal. That didn’t go over well with all the other officers, and that officer, even though he did everything right, was out of law enforcement shortly after the shooting. Now we try to keep in mind what the officer is going through, and that he/she should be treated with respect. It’s still a hard process, but they don’t have to be treated like criminals for protecting themselves.
MARK YOUNG: As an experienced police officer, what is one thing you see dramatized on television, in the movies, or in novels that contradicts what you know to be true in real life? Something as implausible as DNA results by the end of a commercial break. What’s one thing that makes you roll you eyes and say to yourself … that writer doesn’t know what they’re writing about?
The whole lab stuff—DNA, fingerprints, and such—coming back so soon or done while the detective watches is a bit humorous to say the least. It takes months of harassing phone calls to the state lab to even get them to look at the evidence. But I think the perfect computer reenactment of the crime with no measurements or any standard data is probably my personal favorite.
Mark, thanks for taking time to help us understand a little more about what goes on during homicide investigations.
MARCH 29: Author D. P. Lyle, MD is the Macavity Award winning and Edgar® Award nominated author of the non-fiction books, Murder and Mayhem, Forensics For Dummies, Forensics and Fiction, and Howdunnit Forensics: A Guide For Writers as well as the fiction thrillers, Devil’s Playground and Double Blind. His next medical thriller, Stress Fracture, will be released in April, 2010. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law and Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, and 1-800-Missing.
APRIL 5 & 19: Use of deadly force investigations will be our next police topic on Monday, April 5. Our guest will be Investigator Brian Davis from the Sonoma County (CA) District Attorney’s Office. Brian recently joined the DA’s office after thirty years with the Santa Rosa Police Department. While at SRPD, he rose to the rank of lieutenant after serving as a homicide investigator and supervisor for the Violent Crimes Unit among many other assignments. Brian participated in a number of use of force investigations and he will share with us where reality and Hollywood part paths on this issue.
APRIL 12: New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen joins us to discuss her next novel, Ice Cold (UK title: The Killing Place), to be released in July and a new TNT television show Rizzoli and Isles debuting this summer based upon this author’s novels about two Boston crime fighters— Rizzoli, a homicide detective, and Maura Isles, a medical examiner. Tess’s novels have continually topped the bestseller charts in the U.S. and abroad, with her books translated into thirty-seven languages and more than twenty million copies sold around the world.
I really enjoyed getting to know you and the interview. May God continue to bless you and yours.
Thanks, Mark. Stay safe and may God continue to bless your work.ReplyDelete
thanks for the great interview. i'm a fan of mark's books ( loved the night watchmen) and have just signed a three book deal with Kensington, so this post really helps me make sure my manuscript is as realistic as possible before i turn in my final. thanks Mark and Mark. :)ReplyDelete
Wow, this was really helpful! I do have a question though, and it doesn't really relate to this post.ReplyDelete
In my WIP, my protagonist has a stalker. Now, I have done a little research, but I was wondering; my character wants to leave. What are some things she can do to erase her previous identity and start all over? And what are some ways that she could still be found?
This is a really great blog; a lot of useful information here. Thanks Mark! And thank you to you too, Mark Mynheir, for this really informative interview.
Thanks for your comments. I'd love to help you with your WIP problem. Send me an email at MarkYoung@MarkYoungBooksl.com and I'll be able to give you a more complete answer. Wish you well on your writing.
This was a terrific interview and very informative. I recently started following this blog and I'm so glad I did.ReplyDelete
Thank you for visiting, Joyce. We wish you well on your writing journey.ReplyDelete