Friday, November 19, 2010

Investigation 101: Law Enforcement and Families Must Unite

By Tad DiBiase

As a former homicide prosecutor and now consultant on murder cases, I often hear complaints from victim's families about how they are treated by the police. The complaints repeatedly center on a number of issues.

  • First, that the police aren't providing the family with enough information or that they fail to keep the family in the loop on where the investigation is. 
  • Second, families complain that the police haven't followed up on the leads they've provided. 
  • Third, families complain that the police don't want to accept help from outside parties, be they other law enforcement agencies such as the FBI or state investigative bureaus or retired detectives or consultants and third party search groups. 

It has always struck me that in going behind these complaints, that both the victims' families and the police are partially to blame for these complaints. But more importantly, the solution to these complaints is often straightforward. 

First, it is incumbent upon the police to keep the family informed. Whether the investigation is a day old, a year old or a decade old there should be regular communication between the lead investigator and a family member. The family should assign one member to handle the police communications so the police aren't bogged down by replying to several different family members. Having one member keeps the communication clear and enables the police to tell others who inquire about the investigation to contact that family member. 
Obviously the longer an investigation goes on, the more infrequent the communications but it's hard to imagine any investigation (this is a murder after all) that doesn't warrant a call to the family once every two to three months. 

Second, the complaint that the police aren't following up particular leads can have merit. Police do often fail to really listen to the family about who may be responsible for a loved ones death. Investigators need to constantly go back to the family and ask, "Is there anything we missed? What else or who else is out there?" Often leads come to family well after the victim's murder or disappearance when a guilty conscience finally gets to someone. On the other hand, families need to let the police do their job. They are paid and trained to investigate and even a rookie police detective has more training to do an investigation than virtually any regular citizen. Often investigative methods are so sensitive to reveal them even to a family member can jeopardize their success. 

Finally, yes the police are often reluctant to seek outside help. Whether it's true or not (and I suspect it's usually not) the FBI has a reputation for taking over a case and leaving the local law enforcement authorities behind. However, virtually any investigation, especially as leads grow cold, can benefit from fresh eyes and most small departments are ill equipped to handle complex, long term cold cases. 

Having faced skeptical police departments myself during my role as a consultant, it's obvious that many departments ask themselves about the motives of any volunteer. "You in this to help or to get your name in the paper?" Any non-law enforcement group should be viewed skeptically but there are groups that want to help without pay or glory. 

In the end, a fractured relationship between a family and the investigating authorities makes a challenging case even more difficult to solve. And in the end, both families and law enforcement want the same thing: justice. 

Tad DiBiase is a former US Attorney who has successfully prosecuted cases of murder without a body.  To learn more, visit Tad's website:

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