Police work: It’s not like you see on TV
West Memphis Citizens Academy gets look at reallife crime investigation procedures
Reality TV shows condense courtship to marriage into a single hour. Dramas also present serious crimes being solved in the first 24 hours. Sometimes reality just doesn’t stack up to television shows. Such is the case at the Criminal Investigation Division of the West Memphis Police Department. Detectives feel first hand the public frustration with protracted criminal investigations when seemingly everybody in the community knows “who done it.” Investigators run a fast pace and are assigned multiple new felony cases each. The days it takes to get confirmed evidence results from the state crime lab become part of the grind and sometimes lead to frustration from citizens wondering why an arrest has not been made.
The CID took its turn with show and tell at the citizens police academy. Police showed the group gruesome crime scene photos and led step by step through an actual West Memphis murder investigation which went smoothly with great eye witnesses, an accurate and detailed 911 recording, and a review of Sky Cop video of the perpetrator passing of the murder weapon and changing rides in the neighborhood near Regional One where he went to treat his own wounds. The assailants story did not match the video evidence and eye witness accounts. He was charged with murder the same night at the hospital and after crime lab conclusions to solidify the case, later convicted.
CID Lt. Troy Galtelli indicated the case was far from a one episode TV reality show conclusion. The investigation took weeks to conclude despite all the great descriptions of the get away car, accurate witnesses accounts at the scene, and compelling video evidence.
“It seemed like it could go really fast like in 45 minutes without commercials, but it didn’t,” said Galtelli.
“It was weeks. A lot of the evidence came through very quickly as it was going on, but a lot of it didn’t. We were able to get warrants on him quickly and got him arrested that night. But, we could not stop working. We still needed the gun.”
The details of the investigation took time to piece together to make a prosecutable case. The gun was turned the next day and the blood evidence on the gun, and in the murderer’s car needed to be confirmed as a match to the victim’s and weapon used at the bloody crime scene.
The work load for West Memphis detectives has been enormous. While serious crime rates in the city have grown, the police department staff has remained level for a generation. The department has four detec- tives, a detective sergeant and a lieutenant under CID Commander Captain Joe Baker. Certain detectives specialize in different crimes like sexual assault, forgery and fraud, arson, and gun crimes.
“After a busy weekend, we might come in and get assigned four to six cases on Monday,” said WMPD Capt. Robert Langston. “In 2017 we completed 5,436 incident reports and out of those 2833 arrests were made, 800 of those were felony offenses, the remainder were misdemeanor arrests. Eight reports were homicide, 59 battery in the first degree, 33 battery seconds, 26 rapes, 10 arsons, 97 terroristic acts, three kidnappings, 83 aggravated robberies, nine aggravated residential burglars, 194 aggravated assaults. We had that many felony reports come through in just a year’s time.”
The fast pace for felony cases continued the first half of this year. Through June 2, detectives have handled 161 cases.
“Our daily average is 2-4 felony reports,” said Langston. “We had 30 cases awaiting us on Monday.”
All violent crimes and serious felonies are investigated immediately, including a full police report, but patrol officers rank misdemeanors and non-violent felonies.
“Our volume is so high, we started our patrol division on a carding system,” said Galtelli. “A yellow card is for misdemeanors and we go to pursue warrants on it. Victims must go to the courthouse and write out a complaint. It eliminated the police playing middleman and writing a separate report. Lesser felony blue cards, are issued for, for example, criminal mischief with no risk of violence. Complainants are asked contact detectives the next day. There’ll be no detectives called out to a scene like that at night.”
Police went to the card system to zero in on violent cases where incidents when victims wanted an arrest and prosecution and minimize reporting time tied to a desk in the office and maximizing patrol time.
Carding has become an accepted practice in law enforcement; Memphis uses a brief memo from the patrol office to a detective. West Memphis patrol vehicles will soon be equipped with on board computers that can access vehicle, driving and gun records. Patrol officers soon be able to maintain street presence while filing electronic reports.
Chief Donald Oakes said in a separate interview that new equipment will be ready for the road in September. Carding kept manpower on the street instead of filing at a desk. The card system reduced reports from complainants not wanting charges pursued.
“It put the ball in their court to contact us, for follow- up,” said Galtelli. “We had people calling us for felony cases. The patrol division taking the report, then go upstairs to be assigned to a detective. Then the person decides not to prosecute after we had hours and hours into the case already. So we lost time with our officers doing all this paperwork and then nobody to follow though on the case. We tell people at the crime scene, ‘Here is your card. It’s up to you if you want to take the next step.’” Case load overwhelms the four prosecutors as well.
Local prosecutors handle felony cases from the city and all around the county.
“Our prosecutors are getting 350 plus assigned to them a year,” said Galtelli.
Each prosecutor gets only six trial terms a year. At the most they can try 48 cases a year and they are getting 350 from us alone. By the time you throw in the case load from the Crittenden County Sheriff Office it’s probably 500 a year with felony crime. You can quickly see how many cases need to be plead. It’s not just about arresting them; it’s about an over burdened justice system.
Defense attorneys know this too. So, the defense drags their feet sometimes.”
The state’s only crime lab presents another bottleneck often extending the time taken before conclusive action can be taken by police to solve a crime. Biological evidence in particular takes longer to process according to police.
“One crime lab in Little Rock covers everything statewide,” said Galtelli.
“We get good results when we submit good evidence.
We have a good working relationship with them, but they are fighting backlog. If we need a help on a big case we call ahead and ask for a push on the evidence.”
By John Rech