March 29, 2022

Coroner Inquests, Small Town Sheriff or Police Chief, and different Investigative Divisions

Adam explains what a Coroner's Inquest is and why inquests aren't used much anymore, the difference between a small-town Sheriff and Police Chief, and he talks about the various investigative units and their divisions.

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Adam explains what a Coroner's Inquest is and why inquests aren't used much anymore, the difference between a small-town Sheriff and Police Chief, and he talks about the various investigative units and their divisions.

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This week on the writer's detective bureau, coroner, inquests, small town, sheriff, or police chief in different investigative divisions. I'm Adam Richardson. And this is the writer's detective bureau. Welcome to episode 118 of the writer's detective bureau, the podcast dedicated to helping authors and screenwriters write professional quality crime related fiction. And this week I'm talking about coroner's inquests, which we don't really hear about much anymore.

The difference between a small town sheriff and a small town police chief plus the various types of investigative units and divisions. But before we get into that, I want to tell you real quickly that I put together a free lesson on the items. A detective carries every day. I go over some of the key pieces of gear we rely upon and how we use and carry them.

The lesson is about 20 minutes long. It's a 20 minute long video, which basically is just me doing a show and tell, I even reveal what goes into those pouches. You see on a uniformed officers duty belt. So if you'd like to watch the free lesson, just go to writers, forward slash E D C EDC as in everyday carry.

So for the free lesson on crime fiction, protagonists everyday carry it's writers, forward slash E D C. This week's first question comes from Dr. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson who's back. And she writes coming off a binge of Agatha Christie novels. I've just realized that I never hear anyone talk about an inquest after a death in America. Do we not have inquests?

Did we used to do something else? Take their place related to that. If you read an obituary and no cause of death is released, should we infer something like something the family doesn't want you to know about say suicide or overdose, or might it mean that police are investigating? Thanks. Great questions, Sarah. And it involves a bit of a history lesson for your first one,

which I hope as this audience tends to be lovers of words and storytelling. I hope you'll find interesting. Let's start with the officer that was charged with conducting an inquest back in the day. Namely, the coroner, the role of a coroner was as a medieval tax collector in England and Wales who did so on behalf of the crown, hence the name coroner like coronation or Corona,

according to the coroner society of England and Wales quote. After the Norman conquest to deter the local communities from a continuing habit of killing Normans, a heavy fine was levied on any village where a dead body was discovered on the assumption that it was presumed to be Norman, unless it could be proved to be English. The fine was known as the murder drum,

M U R D U R M from which the word murder is derived. And as the system developed many of the early coroner's inquests dealt with the presumption of Norman re, which could only be rebutted by the local community and a find thus avoided by the present moment of English re and quote. In other words, once the English were under Norman rule, starting with William,

the conqueror, the crown didn't want the English killing the Normans. So the village would need to prove during an inquest that any dead body that was found was a local English villager in order to avoid being fined for killing a Norman. So the inquest itself was that questioning of those villagers by the coroner, if anyone knew the identity of the decedent in, if they knew how he or she died.

So coroner inquests were intended to force members of the public to be available to the coroner for questioning in inquest means making an inquiry. Again, this was done to serve the interests of the king of England, particularly property interests of the king. And we in the United States have based our state and federal laws for the most part off of English, common law,

Louisiana being the exception to that, by the way, here is the Miriam Webster definition of murder from early English law, one murder, especially a killing in secret to a fine exacted under the Norman Kings from the hundred in which a person was slain, unless the Slayer was produced or proof was given that the slain person was not a Franco Norman. So back to the coroner's inquest,

taking into account that Norman rule of Britain started in 10 66. It makes sense that coroners relied upon inquests as they certainly did not have anything close to the modern medical scientific and investigative tools and techniques that we do today when it comes to determining a cause manner and time of death, much less determining the identity of a decedent. So if you zoned out for the last few minutes,

here's a quick recap. An inquest was the ability to assemble members of the public for questioning about a death, which although we still have the legal ability to do so as those laws are still on the books. In most states, we no longer rely upon inquests largely thanks to modern day science, as it relates to death investigations. As for the obituary question,

what we infer isn't necessarily what the author implied obituaries are usually written by a family member during a time of grief and how much they share is often a matter of how they want their loved one to be remembered. So I wouldn't read too much into how an obituary reads just as I never judge someone's guilt or innocence in a murder based upon their reaction to the news of someone's death.

Before we get to our next question, I just need to quickly thank my Patrion patrons for supporting this show, especially my gold shield patrons, Debra Dunbar from Debra Dunbar com CC Jameson from CC Larry Keeton Vicki Tharp of Vicki Larry darter, Natalie Barrelli Craig Kingsman of Craig Kingsman dot com. Lynn Vitale, Marco Carocari of Marco Carocari dot com.

Rob Kerns of nightfall,, Mariah stone of Mariah, Aurora Jacobson and Kaylee for their support, along with my Silver Cufflink and Coffee Club patrons, you can find links to all of the patrons supporting this episode in the show notes at writers, forward slash 1 1 8, and to learn more about using Patrion to grow your author business, or to support the show,

check out writers, forward slash Patreon, P a T R E O N. This week's. Next question comes from Jordan Bach, who writes, hello? Thanks for taking the question. I hope it isn't too vague or wide reaching. What is the difference between a small town that has a sheriff running the policing example in long Longmeyer and having a small police department with a chief of police like the new Jack Reacher series?

My impression is that it's when a towns statutes choose to elect a sheriff rather than having an elected mayor point, the chief, or is it more complicated than that? I see county Sheriff's and town sheriffs and fiction. So I'm concerned about getting the terminology, correct. Specifically, my story is in a small town of less than 15,000. I want the guy running the police at the town level to be new to the area,

elected and has to deal with something. The towns, people think he can't because he doesn't quote get the towns particular quirks following on if a Sheriff's department or small PD finds, they have a crime or incident too big to handle like a major traffic incident or major shooting. Do they request assistance from county or state police? If a member of their team were murdered and the suspect pool extends to the victim's colleagues,

would a detective be called in from the state or county to handle it. Is there even a hierarchy as such many? Thanks for reading this and thank you for the podcast in general, Jordan, thanks for the questions, Jordan, for the small town sheriff versus small town police chief issue, it comes down to whether the town is its own municipality here in the United States.

Each state is broken up into counties in each county. There'll be cities, towns, communities, et cetera. If the city or town is incorporated as a municipality, meaning the local citizens decided to form their own local government like forming a city council, electing or appointing a mayor, collecting their own taxes to provide services. Then one of those services, the municipality must provide is policing.

That municipality can then do a one of two things to provide that service either form their own police department, hire police officers and a police chief by the police cars build a police station, or they can enter into a contract with the county sheriff to provide police services to the municipality often at a cheaper cost than the city or town starting up their own police department.

Most counties in the United States have land that do not fall within the boundaries of a municipality. Meaning not every acre in a county is inside of a city, right? Especially in rural areas. The city limits might end a few blocks outside of the town square and housing tracks and everything outside the city limits or outside of the incorporated municipalities limits are considered unincorporated land.

So that is the county area and the residents in businesses in unincorporated areas. If they call nine 11 and need the cops for something, it will be a Sheriff's deputy from the county Sheriff's office that responds well. Talk about the highway patrol here in just a minute. If the resident or business is inside a municipality like a city than a city police officer from the city police department response,

a Sheriff's department or Sheriff's office is headed by an elected county sheriff one that is elected by the population of the county during a regular election. Usually every four years, a police chief is appointed usually by a city manager, mayor or city council. The main difference being that a police chief can pretty much be fired by the city at any time. Whereas the sheriff is an elected official and it would take a formal recall or an opponent to run against the incumbent sheriff in a future election.

If the police department or county Sheriff's office doesn't have sufficient resources to work a case, then they can certainly ask for more resources from either a state or federal agency or from a neighboring agency. In many counties around the United States, the Sheriff's office will step into assist smaller police departments or even offer to take over the investigation. The Sheriff's office will not claim any kind of superior jurisdiction over a crime that happens within a city.

So they won't come into a police department's area of responsibility and just take over, but they can certainly offer to help or to help take over that investigation. I have seen where a small police department has an officer involved shooting, which as I've talked about before, really involves two investigations with two investigative teams, a criminal investigative team, just like any other shooting investigation,

where a team is trying to determine whether criminal charges are warranted. And then an administrative investigative team is handling an admin investigation. Meaning that team is trying to determine whether the shooting was within policy, making sure the facts of the shooting are consistent with the department's use of force policy. This is an important investigation because if the officer involved shooting was fatal, let's say the officer shot and killed someone.

If the shooting was within policy, then the department's attorney will represent the officer. If and when a wrongful death civil lawsuit is filed by the decedent's family. If the shooting was not within department policy, meaning the administrative investigative team found that the officer did something that is not allowed, then the officer will have to have their own attorney for any civil or criminal proceedings,

not the attorney of that city. So if this happens in a small city, the police department may do the admin investigation to see if their officer acted within their use of force policy. And then they may ask the Sheriff's office to handle the criminal investigation. The other investigation here in California, it's actually now state law that the criminal investigation be conducted by the California attorney General's office.

If the officer involved shooting resulted in the death of an unarmed individual. So if we extrapolate from that, I think it would be logical for your story scenario of needing an independent investigation, one independent from the local police department to be handled by either a county or state investigative team. Now, when I say the California attorney General's office, those would be attorney general investigators.

So they would be peace officers, not necessarily attorneys, but they would be special agents of the California attorney General's office. And they have multiple different bureaus within that department. So not, it's not just straight attorney general special agents. They may work for the bureau of narcotics enforcement or something like that. Lastly, I know that here in California, the law states that the sheriff is the ranking law enforcement officer in the county.

So if push came to shove where you have a sheriff and a handful of police chiefs from departments within the county, it is the sheriff that has the final authority. But honestly, I can't really think of an issue where that would even come up. The only thing I can think of is when a police department is struggling with vacancies, like if your small police department has a mass Exodus,

like eight officers quit and only three officers remain, then the sheriff is required by law to provide deputies, to fill shift vacancies of the police department, either until the police department hires enough new officers to fill those shifts, or the police department is absorbed by the Sheriff's department. And those police officers would then become Sheriff's deputies as a result. Now that would be a much bigger event where it had to do with almost like a city going bankrupt to a certain extent,

but it would be a much more local government issue beyond just simply the police department, not having enough shifts to, or officers to fill those shifts. But that has happened in numerous times throughout, certainly throughout California. And as a quick aside, since you mentioned a major traffic accident in your scenario, if the accident happens within a municipality, that police department handles that investigation here in California,

the CHP, you know, the California highway patrol, the old Chip's Ponch and John guys and gals, they handled the freeways, which if you're in the south or on the east coast, you would call that an interstate. Or if you're in England, it would be similar to the<inaudible>, you know, a very big multi-lane motorway. So the CHP handles the freeways here in California,

as well as any accidents and traffic violations on a road in an unincorporated area. So if you are a Sheriff's deputy on patrol in the unincorporated area of the county and a traffic accident happens, it's actually the CHP in California that would respond. You wouldn't have to do that. You wouldn't be responsible as a Sheriff's deputy for that traffic accident investigation. It doesn't mean you couldn't,

but that's actually<inaudible> per view, I should say. So the CHP would handle the traffic related stuff and the Sheriff's office would handle the crime related stuff. Now, if the municipality contracts with the sheriff for police services, so the Sheriff's department acts as the police department for that tiny little town, then the Sheriff's deputy would have to investigate the traffic accident in that city that they have a contract for since the CHP only handles traffic in unincorporated areas.

I hope that isn't too confusing. And that's one of those things that may vary greatly in other states when it comes to the difference in traffic enforcement, at least for a state police versus the county Sheriff's department. So be sure to do your homework on the setting of your story. Thanks for the question, Jordan. This next question comes from gold shield patron,

Rob Kerns of Knights, fall, who writes, hello, Adam. I hope the days have treated you and yours. Well, thanks much for your excellent answer to my cold case question, but you know what they say about the reward for work well done, right? More work or in this case more questions that is absolutely true, especially when you in the detective bureau.

All right. So Rob goes on to say, my first question has to do with divisions within police departments. Over the years, I've heard of things like the major case squad or robbery homicide division, and I'm probably butchering these next terms, but I remember an earlier podcast episode where you mentioned crimes against property and crimes against people. My question is, this is the dividing line for divisions like a major case squad the line between crimes against property versus people along with that is vice its own animal because it's often nonviolent crime against people.

My other question relates to whether an object would be treated as evidence. Here's the situation in my most recent PI mystery, the PI is meeting with a contact in the apartment over the contact shop. During the conversation, someone starts bashing into the shop through a door downstairs, the pie hides in hopes of surprising the insistent it unwelcomed guest and grabs a chef's knife from the knife block in the apartment's kitchen.

As a Justin Case, long story short, the guest turns out to be two hostiles armed with pistols, and the PI uses their focus on the contact to slip up behind them using the knife against one of the two to convince them to surrender the pie. Didn't draw blood or harm the hostile in any way, but when the police arrive and take the hostiles into custody,

would the knife be treated as evidence along with the pistols, many thanks and best wishes to you and yours regards. Rob, thanks so much for the questions, Rob. Okay. Let's start at the beginning. A small police department may only have one or two detectives if they even have any at all in agencies like that, you handle pretty much everything as a detective,

which we call where I work anyway, being a generalist, detective homicide, domestic violence, burglary, graffiti, tagging crews, you get it all. When the detective bureau gets a bit bigger, the natural dividing line you're correct. Rob is whether it's a crime against persons or a crime against property. I started as a property crimes detective that was burglary fraud,

fiduciary, elder abuse, identity theft, that kind of stuff. And then I moved over to what we called major crimes, which was later renamed crimes against persons. So that was the major crimes unit or the crimes against persons unit. The joke when I worked in the property crimes unit and the other detectives were in major crimes, was that we were the minor crimes unit.

If your department, detective bureau is big enough and has a high enough violent crime rate, you may see even more specialization like a dedicated homicide unit or an SVU special victims unit. Where I worked, we handled all robbery, homicide and sexual assault cases. We didn't have separate units for each of those crime types, but in the larger agencies like in New York or Los Angeles,

you will certainly see that specialization just because they have enough of a caseload to warrant it. So those detectives wear the suit and tie types in a criminal investigations division or CID that was separate from the more surveillance intensive detective casework. The, you know, the detectives that grew go and ponytails or dare I say earrings, you know, I'm dating myself here,

but those undercover types that don't look like they're right out of a law and order episode, those would be the narcs and vice detectives. Some agencies lump narcs narcotics, and vice crimes together because technically a vice prime traditionally was considered a quote-unquote victim lists crime. So it's not. So that's really, the definition is victimless. But I say that with air quotes crimes like illegal gambling,

bookmaking prostitution in narcotic sales things have certainly changed in the last decade or so. We're prostitution is no longer being considered a victimless crime. It's now human trafficking with an emphasis on the pimps, being the traffickers and the prostitutes being the victims of their traffickers. This has made a huge difference in prosecuting the pimps and in trying to get the traffic out of the game,

as they say. So you would likely split up the divisions between criminal investigations, the suit and ties and some clever name like special investigations or something like that for the undercover types. But if you had a department with a budget for let's say eight detectives, you are more likely going to have the majority, if not all of them assigned to criminal investigations because the narc and vice detectives are more of a nice to have than a must have like those working to solve violent crimes.

Now that said, I really do think the Narcan vice type cases do need to be worked. Those cases will never go away, but I liken it to taking out the garbage. If you don't take your garbage bin out to the curb regularly, it's going to back up quickly and make the place unlovable. If your police department ignores the drug sales, the streetwalkers the gangsters,

the city is going to go downhill very quickly. Now as for the knife as evidence question, yes, the knife would definitely be treated as evidence as it is an article of property that could be used to show a court if needed exactly what happened no different than the pistols or the photographs of the broken glass door or photos of any injuries incurred by the victims or witnesses or suspects or the recordings of the subsequent interviews.

Anything that tends to show what happened can be seized and used as evidence. Going back to my answer of the previous question, even the police officer's gun in an officer involved shooting will be seized as evidence, and it might be years before that officer gets that gun back. We literally have extra hand guns in safes at my department that are there to assign to an officer as a replacement.

If there's been an OIS, an officer involved shooting and their primary handgun was seized as evidence. So I hope that answers your question, Rob your questions, and thanks so much for submitting them. Thank you so much for listening this week. The show is powered by your questions. Send them to me by going to writers, forward slash podcast. And if you wouldn't mind,

would you share this episode with a writer that you know, or perhaps a writing group? My goal for 2022 is to help as many writers as possible and sharing this podcast would mean the world to me, because that would help me fulfill that mission. So thanks again for listening. Have a great week and write well.