Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder Cop: A Profile of Vernon J. Geberth

Practical Homicide Protocol

The Seventh Homicide Zone comprised four precincts in the South Bronx.  "Within these four square miles, we had two hundred and twenty homicides a year," Geberth states. "It was unbelievable. And when I first came back, I was supervising people that were senior to me, both in age and experience.  My idea of supervision was that if I was going to oversee people in a specialized unit, I had better learn the process."  He observed who the sharpest detectives were and spent most of his time around them.  He paid attention and wrote things down, and this eventually became a Homicide Checklist.  "That was the nucleus of Practical Homicide.  I created the checklists so I could be on top of the investigations.  I didn't even realize what impact this would eventually have."

Vernon Geberth takes a close look at evidence from a case
Vernon Geberth takes a close look at evidence from a case

  On his days off, Geberth would go to the library and look up everything on homicide.  "I would read it and synopsize it, because at that time I already had my first master's degree and I decided to research my own occupation searching for a better way to proceed."  In the police department, there were basic guidelines for how to use forms and make notifications, but not how to solve crimes.  In 1978, he started writing as a contributing author for Law and Order Magazine: "I figured that writing about my experience reinforced it."  Readers then began to ask for more from him. 

"I would take my own photographs of the crime scenes as well as the official crime scene pictures home and analyze them.  I always used to keep a Rolodex of the experts that I had met in different locations. I would call them up for advice and counsel, ask them this and that, and involve them in the case. I was the first person to use forensic entomology in the police department.  I went down to the Museum of Natural History and interviewed a forensic anthropologist and an entomologist, so as I was putting together these resources to include forensics into the cases, I was also making friends."

He'd invite the museum entomologist to a crime scene when a body was covered in maggots, and his officers would ask him why he wanted such a person along.  "I'd say, 'This is forensic entomology.  This guy is going to give us an approximate time of death.' And they'd say, 'Bullshit.' I had to basically fight everybody as I implemented new forensic techniques. Anyway, I'd come up with a time of death that matched information from an informant. It was terrific because now I had shown these detectives the value of entomology."

Pupal casings, evident in forensic entomology
Pupal casings, evident in forensic entomology

Eventually, Geberth was invited to update a book on homicide for the Charles C. Thomas Company.   But they didn't want him to be the actual author, so he shopped around and ended up with Elsevier Press.  "It turns out that Elsevier Press was thinking of starting a forensic series. And so they were interested."  That was the impetus for Practical Homicide Investigation, a thick book of 800-plus pages that, now in its third edition, covers everything from the crime scene and proper evidence handling and documentation, to different types of homicides and psychological profiling.

The Practical Homicide Investigation Checklist and Field Guide by Vernon Geberth
The Practical Homicide Investigation Checklist and Field Guide by Vernon Geberth

PHI's five primary components, according to Geberth, are teamwork, documentation, preservation of evidence, being flexible, and using common sense.  At a crime scene, investigators are to observe, describe, record whatever they find, and collect the evidence with the proper procedures.  In the process, they develop a mental image of the crime.  They must keep in mind that they are all on the same side: they work as a team and share their information and strategies. That attitude, Geberth found, was initially resisted, but he persisted in the belief that there's no such thing as a private investigation.  Cops had to work cooperatively.

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