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Adventures in Law Enforcement 2000

Police work is much more than fast cars and top guns. When it comes to many “non-traditional” policing jobs, highly specialized training is key.

March 01, 2000  |  by Rebecca Stone

Maybe it began with a steady diet of the centuries Adam-12.  Maybe the influence came from your dad, your mom, your Uncle Ned.  Some have even hinted that they enjoyed the idea of getting paid to drive fast cars, while others came out of the military quite addicted to the danger.  Still others just wanted to help people and make the world a better place.

Whatever inspired you to become a police officer, when it comes to police work you know law enforcement has many faces.  Aside from the array of different specialties within your own department, each jurisdiction, county or state may put its own spin on these specialties.

Each March, POLICE offers a condensed look at some of the more specialized, less "traditional" types of police work, not normally covered in our other 11 issues per year.  We hope you find this year's selection as fascinating as we did.

Medicolegal Death Investigators/Deputy Coroners

Massachusetts State Trooper Kevin Murphy has seen over 900 autopsies in his last 20 years as a death investigator for the Hampshire/Franklin County District Attorney's Office.  "I do a lot of the bodies and a lot of the homicides," said the 28-year law enforcement veteran.  Murphy has seen his share of interesting cases, "A lot has to do with the amount of time spent between finding the body and finding the perpetrator.  It can take anywhere from 2 minutes to 4 years," he told POLICE.

Murphy works in a state trooper contingency within the DA's office.  In his two-county jurisdiction, a medical examiner, or M.E., is the primary authority in death investigation courses.

A Tale of Two Systems

According to Julie Wiedemann, of the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, there are currently more than 3,100 death investigation jurisdictions scattered throughout the United States.

Two kinds of systems deal with investigation of deaths, particularly sudden deaths, in the United States.  While some sheriff-coroner system, others use appointed medical examiners (usually forensic pathologists) to investigate deaths.  Still other states use a mix of both systems.

Cullen W. Ellingburgh, Supervising Deputy, Orange Co. Sheriff-Coroner told POLICE, "In California, the majority of the counties combine the office of sheriff and coroner and with few exceptions patrol deputies perform the coroner functions."

Rick McAnally, assistant deputy chief coroner of the Orange County Coroner, explained that even though coroners are elected, they still have medical and law enforcement expertise available to them.  "In smaller areas, maybe still the local mortician is coroner but this is changing.  In California, this is a thing of the past.  Almost all are sheriff-coroners now."

Accordingly, in jurisdictions using the sheriff-coroner system, sworn, armed deputy coroners carry out investigative duties.  Said McAnally, a former paramedic, "A lot of cases we deal with involve crime-just by the nature of the position."  He said that deputies sometimes do apply arrest powers, though that's not their primary duty.

In jurisdiction using the M.E. system, the investigators are often called death investigators or medicolegal death investigators.  In some areas, civilians carry out these roles, in others it is patrol officers or detectives who perform these functions.

In Cook Co., Ill., investigators, called "medical examiner investigators," come from various backgrounds.  Dr. Edmund Donoghue, chief medical examiner of the Office of the Medical Examiner of Cook County said that some have been police officers.  Some are part-time police officers.  Unlike the Orange County investigators, they have no police powers.   Donoghue thinks this could cause more harm than good.  "We don't see the need for our guys to be armed," he said.

Regardless of which system is used, the task is an intense one and some in the M.E. system have expressed the concern about training coroners.

But as noted forensics expert Dr. Henry Lee, commissioner of the Connecticut State Police, told POLICE, "Some coroners are excellent, some lack training, but this can also be true for M.E.s.  It depends on the individual.  You can't really compare systems."


While it appears that in some areas, death investigators are trained on the job, in others, there is a full course of formal training and this is perhaps becoming a trend.

Officer Daniel V. Christman, a former medicolegal death investigator, teaches course in this specialty to new sheriff and police recruits and lateral officers at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.  Said Christman, "Training for death investigators is a mixed bag.  In some areas pay is low and the level of training, both at university and continuing education, is little to none."  Christman believes the M.E. system may have higher standards for investigators but added that in some areas, the coroner's office is strong.

Orange County's Ellingburgh spoke of the growing interest in better training.  He has long coordinated the only POST-approved basic coroners death investigation academy in California.  "At least half of those who attend this program are police officers and or detectives-some from as far away as Norway," he said.

McAnally added that the Orange Co. Sheriff-Coroner Department has its own academy: a two-week medicolegal school.  Besides studying basic death and homicide investigation, McAnally said investigators also learn how to deliver death notification and deal with the grief process.  Said McAnally, "This is probably the most difficult part of the job.  We have to get so much information on why this person died, during these people's worst hours."


Whatever training investigators can tuck under their belts goes toward supporting responsibilities that range from collecting evidence to testifying in court.

Those who spoke with us cited investigator responsibilities as including the assumption of responsibility for the deceased or anything on the deceased; determining cause of death, particularly sudden deaths outside the medical system; determining manner of death; identifying the deceased; safeguarding property of the deceased until next of kin can be located; and taking reports.

McAnally told POLICE that deputy coroners often collect evidence from the body at a scene before it's moved.  He said that in most areas in the states, it's illegal to move the body before the coroners gets there due to the need to be able to establish time of death and preserve evidence.

Donoghue told POLICE that because his investigators are responsible for evidence collected from the body itself, they will often examine a body at the M.E.'s officer or funeral home, rather than at the scene, depending on age of deceased and circumstances of death.

"There are problems inherent with keeping a body outside if a large crowd is gathering," he explained, adding that every effort is made to minimize loss of evidence.

In Connecticut, like Massachusetts, most death investigations are conducted by a state police detective.

Dr. Henry Lee told POLICE that evidence is collected and photographs are taken and sent to the state police forensic science lab where scientists examine clues, such as DNA and fingerprints.

Said Lee, "When reports come back, we recreate the scene: when, where did it happen?  We determine the motive.  Was it passion, politics, a love triangle, etc.?  Then we try to determine who's responsible and present our findings in court."

Lee spoke to the amount of work involved in an investigation, such as examining evidence at the scene before the body is moved, before the autopsy.  "Today, there's a lot of teamwork-no second commercial like in the Quincy show," he said, referring to the fact that, unlike the television series, it usually takes more than a half hour and a station break to solve a crime.

Future Trends

Many of the future's trends for this field are wrapped up in technological advancements.  Lee and Donoghue both spoke of changes as a result of DNA developments.  Said Lee, "While you can pinpoint guilt, you can also exonerate someone-DNA has been instrumental in this."  He explained that DNA can be translated into vital information, making it possible to examine evidence on a body, such as fingerprints, even after several years have elapsed.

Donoghue added that DNA has become more important, especially in suspected sexual assaults.  "We are beginning to see that confessions may be unreliable in certain situations, especially in serial murders," he said.  "We need substantiation and DNA is at the forefront here."

Of those who spoke with us, several shared a concern for continuing education and professionalism.  In fact, there seems to be push toward accreditation.  This may have to do with increased accountability and liability.

As Wiedemann pointed out, "Investigators must have a combination of education and skills encompassing the areas of medicine and law."  To that end, the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators offers a voluntary certification program.


The types of problems confronting death investigators appear to be jurisdiction-specific.

For Orange County's McAnally, it's a matter of balancing the coroner's obligation with what's best for the community.   He outlined his dilemma: "People on life support are taken off support.  These deaths must be investigated before the family removes organs for donations.  But you can only wait so long.  We have to weigh between someone waiting for an organ with keeping the organs intact for the case investigation.  Our staff gets into a real difficult position.  With technology the way it is now (with so many kinds of transplants possible), out investigators need to be called in immediately before an organ harvest.  This is the biggest challenge."

Murphy cited another type of problem.  "Timeliness in locating the body.  If a guy dies today and you don't find the body for a month, you've lost a lot of evidence."

Lee said coordination is a potential headache.  "There are multiple agencies involved.  Each must work correctly.  Second: crime scene security-family, untrained police officers... By the time we get there it's no longer the original scene.  It's been contaminated and evidence ahs been destroyed or added."

Lee cautioned against investigators falling prey to tunnel vision.  "You must collect evidence first.  Then let evidence lead you to suspect.  Let the evidence speak for itself."

For Donoghue, getting enough correct information for the death certificate can be a nagging problem.

In any profession as complex as death investigation, there are bound to be a range of problems.  But there are those who find this particular brand of sleuthing more than worth the trouble.

As Rick McAnally told POLICE, "The greatest satisfaction is to be able to find answers to help others gain closure-so they can get on with their lives."

For more information, visit

Humane Officers/ Cruelty Investigators/ Animal Control

"The day of the dog catcher is gone," said Mike Gillingham.  "Too many  liability issues." He was referring to the strong push in recent years to professionalize animal control and human investigations.

Said Gillingham, "There are over 100 million pet owners in the U.S.  People are concerned about animal neglect and cruelty.  There's more demand to investigate these cases."

Gillingham, a retired 14-year veteran of the St. Luis Co. (Mo.) Police Department, has been program coordinator for the National Cruelty Investigation School at the University of Missouri Law Enforcement Training Institute since 1986.

Today, Gillingham says that his program is the only one like it in the world and the response has been phenomenal.  When asked if there has been an increase in those attending classes, Gillingham said, "God, yes!  We have over 1,000 officers attending full week courses.  We do some training here but mostly travel around the country.  We just cannot meet the need at this point.  We need to expand," said Gillingham.

Each year Gillingham's program coordinates with the National Animal Control Association to put on the National Animal Control Training Academy.

Gillingham said that typically his classes consist of a mix of students.  "Out of a class of 30, there will be maybe five to 10 police officers or deputies."  He said that most come from sheriff's departments, as these agencies tend to have more rural areas in their jurisdictions.

Agencies That Have Made a Difference

Dave Garcia, director of operations, Houston SPCA, has been an investigator for about 15 years.

"When I took the job, I insisted that we needed the same training as law enforcement.  Over the last 10-15 years I've seen the caliber of investigations triple."

Garcia told POLICE that while investigators from his agency don't have power of arrest, like they do in some others, when needed, they call in law enforcement.

"We have to have probable cause, collect evidence, keep chain of evidence clear-Essentially, we are working a criminal case.  The object is the welfare of the animal.

"I know many police officers throughout the country who now work as animal cruelty investigators/humane investigators.  It used to be we'd see more retired officers come into this work.  Now I see a lot of young officers come in."

Kathy Gilstrap, Animal Control Manager of the Lakewood (Colo.) Police Department told POLICE, "Some days this task is more successful than others."  She said that most citizens are "law abiding" and want to do the right thing.  But she adds, "On other days, we encounter situations tat make us sick to our stomachs."  Gilstrap conjures visions of malnourished horses, animals left in disgusting feces-filled accommodations, and the al too often calls regarding animal abuse-which is associated with child abuse.

"These types of situations are a constant reminder to us that while enforcement is necessary in our community, so is education," said Gilstrap.

Gilstrap and her officers are non-sworn unarmed state class III peace officers and only have authority to make arrests for animal control-related issues.  But, they are uniformed, badged, wear vests, carry a bite stick and OC spray and work under the police department as part of the patrol division.  They have authority to take an animal from its owner, depending on the situation.

On duty around the clock, during 1999, Lakewood answered approximately 7,000 calls for service and made more than 15,000 citizen contacts.

One agency, whose humane officers, known as special agents, are, in fact, armed and sworn police peace officers is New York's American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Humane Law Enforcement.  They wear vests, uniforms the same color as NYPD's officers and drive marked Crown Vic units complete with lights, sirens and decals.

Officer Mark MacDonald, of the ASPCA, explained, "The difference between peace and police officers is peace officers can't do a stop and frisk.  I need probable cause, where a police officer can act on suspicion."

MacDonald told POLICE that his agency has conducted animal cruelty investigations throughout the entire state of New York for the past 27 years.  Agents operate as both uniformed and undercover officers, investigate more than 5,000 cases per year and arrest or issue summonses to more than 300 people each year.

MacDonald said that it is not uncommon for retired police officers to come to work for the ASPCA.  "Cops bring their own technical expertise to the job.  They can still use their tactical skills."

On the other side of the country is Captain Paul Culver, a humane officer with the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA.  One of six officers serving nearly 3 million people, his agency processes about 2,000 cases a year.  "We're kept busy," he told POLICE.

Sworn humane officers with peace officer powers, San Diego's Level I officers are armed and academy-trained.


"I've found about 80 percent of the abuse is non-intentional," said Houston's Garcia.  "It's a matter of education.  A big part of an officer's job is being an educator."

In fact, aside from investigating abuse and other animal-related issues, community education is something that most humane agencies find at the tops of their to-do lists.

MacDonald takes his expertise to the schools where he talks with kids about pet care and answers their questions.  "It has a big effect on the," he said.  "Parents often haven't talked to them about animals," he told POLICE.

New York ASPCA investigators are charged, among other things, with checking on the wellbeing of animals and investigating blood sports, felony offenses involving mainly dog fighting and cock fighting.  In these "sports," abused dogs are forced to fight to the death and birds are fitted with razor-sharp spurs to achieve the same end.  It has become a widespread problem throughout the country.

Another responsibility involves fellow officers.

Gilstrap said that her officers and the police officers watch out for each other and help each other.  Culver also said that there is good cooperation between his agency and local law officers.

MacDonald spoke to the uncertainties of the work they do.  "Not every knock on the door is going to be a barking dog complaint.  You don't know what you're walking into until you're in there.  A lot of times the shit hits the fan and you have to deal with it.  at times we'll request police backup.  Most of the time you can see it coming so you can call for help."

MacDonald said they often work with police officers, training them in the skills needed to deal with situations they encounter involving animals in the field.  Such situations might involve guard dogs, fight areas and crack dens using dogs as protection.

"Emergency Services gets called out.  We also go our and tranquilize animals, remove dogs.  We help out on a lot of busts.  If an informant tells of a dog in a house we go in with the bunker team. Our job is to get to where the animal is while they do their job-so nobody gets bitten."


When training officers for the ASPCA frontlines, MacDonald requires them to watch films so they can see what they're likely to run up against.  "I can't have an officer fall apart on me.  They have to put things in perspective," he said.

Training for New York's humane law enforcement agents, as mandated by the New York State Municipal Police Council, includes a 40-hour peace officer training class and a 47-hour firearms class.  Agents also spend time taking complaints and working with field training officers.

Humane Law Enforcement training is also available for police officers and employees of other humane agencies.

New York's ASPCA isn't the only agency that provides training for police officers.  "I have 47 classes next year.  It's really exciting," said Garcia, who teaches four hours of continuing education on animal abuse to all Houston police officers.  In fact, the Houston SPCA administers continuing training to law enforcement officers across the state of Texas.

Response from the officers?  "Initially some might not take it seriously," Garcia told POLICE.  "But it takes about 15 minutes to bring the point home to them."

Garcia outlined the complexities of animal cruelty cases.  "When you're doing a criminal investigation, you have people to talk to.  My victims can't speak.  We have to piece together the crime scene to the point that we have probably cause."

Lakewood's humane officers and the San Diego Humane Society, which has its own academy, also put heavy time into training.  Culver said of his officers, "Every three years they must show 40 hours of ongoing training."


Nearly all of the humane officers we spoke with put "collectors" (Gilstrap calls them "hoarders") at the tops of their lists of worst problems, along with pet overpopulation.

Aside from that, Lisa Saavedra, assistant director of National Shelter Outreach, ASPCA in New York, sees not only public ignorance but ignorance on the part of police departments as a problem.  She told POLICE, "Any police officer anywhere in the country can investigate animal cruelty.  A lot of police officers don't know that."

Garcia agreed, adding that the judicial system itself needs to be educated.  "You have to explain to a DA what they can and can't do."

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