Crime Fiction: The Truth About Police Investigation With Joe Giacalone

If you’re a crime fiction fan, then you will love this interview with Joe Giacalone. You can hear the excitement in my voice as I was so thrilled to be talking to a real NYPD cop! Joe has amazing experience and he generously shares with us here. I would love to have Joe back on the show so please leave any questions in the comments and we’ll try to do a follow up. Full video interview also available below the show notes if you’d rather watch.

Joe Giacalone is a law enforcement supervisor with an extensive background in criminal investigations including the cold case homicide squad and he holds the Medal of Valor. He also has an MA in Criminal Justice, teaches criminal investigation and is the author of “The Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators“.

  • Joe has 19 years in the NYC police department working on criminal investigations including the Cold Case Squad. He’s also an adjunct professor at John Jay College and wrote his book to back up the course he teaches.
  • What do writers get wrong about the criminal justice system? People fall into the CSI Miami black hole. It’s all so rushed but the reality is totally different. You have to take your time with investigation. We’ve also fallen in love with the technology but the good old-fashioned police-work still counts, knocking on doors etc.
  • Most of the time in investigation you spend talking to people. Dialogue is critical for crime writing. The police still take notes on a notepad. You have to be good at communication and get information from people. If you knock on someone’s door at 3 am you need to be able to build rapport. If you can get people to talk, they will provide the information. After years of experience, you pick up on non-verbal body cues and can tell what’s going on but you can’t base your investigation on it, especially if there are different cultural issues involved. People behave differently in different cultures which may also relate to different physical neighborhoods. NYC is particularly diverse.
  • On writing detective characters and the most important character traits. You have to be persistent, you can’t give up. Investigating cold cases in particular means you can’t give up. Be determined. Develop additional leads, find new witnesses. You have to be a good communicator and build good rapport quickly. It’s critical. Talk about their kids or photos on the wall. You don’t just jump into “We’re here to investigate the murder”, you start by breaking the ice.
  • There are some groups who are not so keen on police. You need to be able to deal with that. At some places, you have to look up for “airmail”, the stuff people throw down on you. Police are trained and use techniques to make sure you’re always on your guard. You have to have a purpose in going somewhere. When you’re writing, you’re fishing for information. Fishing is not for interrogation – you need to know everything by then.
  • On carrying a gun, you only take it out if there is a situation where your life is in danger. You don’t point it out at the sky either, point it to the ground.
  • Is the stereotype of cynical, burnt-out cop true? There is a lot to be cynical about and some people are more affected than others. You have to have your ways of dealing with it. The police force is just a microcosm of the rest of the world. There’s only so much you can deal with before you personally suffer. Police do laugh a lot, there are defense mechanisms.
  • On writing criminals. There are some bad people but where there’s a crime there is MOM – Means, Opportunity and Motive. Some people do things because of economic or family situation. They are not all super-bad people. Writers give too much credit to bad guys but a lot of them are not very smart, for example, the bank robber who writes note on the back of his own deposit slip. The people who don’t get caught are the few compared to those that are caught by police.
  • Why are we so fascinated with violence and crime? It’s a part of human nature. Joe talks about the criminological theories. Social bond theory – everyone would be a criminal but for what keeps us grounded. Attachment and family are important. It starts at home. The commitment of school, job and friends keeps people grounded. You don’t want to be embarrassed or shamed. Other theories – social learning, conflict theory. It’s all based on sociology and psychology. Do we watch these crime TV shows because it makes life more exciting? Joe explains that the old show Barney Miller is probably the closest show to reality.
  • On interrogation techniques. The questions you have, you already know the answers to. “The box” is the interrogation room. The hardest person to talk to is the one who has been through the system before. A good tip is to look at people in the jail cell beforehand to see who to interview first – it’s the guy who’s desperate to get out. There’s a saying “The guilty always sleep” e.g. if someone’s been on the run for a while, then the adrenalin stops and they fall asleep in custody.
  • Police are allowed to lie and trick but not to fabricate. We have all learned to be good liars and people bring out all the tricks when faced with interrogation, so you need to be prepared and use all your skills. Say things like “Do you know what DNA is?” You don’t have to say you have that evidence but you’ve planted the seed. It’s real cat and mouse. You can be in ‘the box’ for hours on end as long as people get adequate rest and breaks which are all documented.  Each case is different.
  • On interrogating in other languages and dealing with interpreters and how the words could be changed. That makes it difficult but in the NYC department there are many detectives who speak different languages so isn’t a big issue in big departments.
  • On body language in an interrogation room. Arms crossed, even complete body cross – people will curl up into chairs. You need to vary your approach as you want to back off sometimes, get people to relax but it helps you find the right track. A riveting interrogation scene could be a whole book.
  • On why Joe does his job. The cold case investigations are very rewarding as after years, you can give people closure. You are the last advocate for people sometimes. It’s the proverbial knight in shining armor where you are defending someone, you’re the care-taker. It can be hard and Joe teaches coping with this life to his students. Police work is 7 hours of boredom and 1 hour of sheer terror, it’s not all CSI.

You can find Joe at his blog JoeGWrites.com and also at The Cold Case Squad blog. His book The Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators is available on Amazon and other sites. Joe is also on twitter @joegiacalone and @coldcasesquad

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Comments

  1. Sony Smith says

    I have been listening to the Creative Penn for about a year and this is by far the best interview. I would like to see more like this. It was fascinating to hear some reality.

    Do cops really go undercover like they do on TV where they are allowed to actually break laws to take down a valuable target?

    Is it really usually the living spouse who did it in cases of a dead spouse?

    Do the officials intentionally use aggressive and dominant body language as the default composure or is that a byproduct of the type of person?

    How do you handle a hostile group of known criminals vs. a single known criminal both when you are there to arrest them and and when you are just there for information?

  2. Cheryl Schenk says

    I really enjoyed this interview. My novel deals with an historical police investigation, but I think some of the points would have applied just as well back then. This was very informative.

    Thanks Joe G & Joanna for your time.

  3. says

    Hi Sonny,
    Here are your answers to your questions:

    1. Yes, police officers do go deep undercover especially in organized crime, narcotics, gangs and even terrorism. In drug cases, undercovers are often requested to ingest narcotics to see if they refuse. Many police department have procedures to handle such incidents. It is a position that no one would want to be put in. Since most, if not all of these operations are recorded, an undercover would be pulled out before things got totally out of control.

    2. Yes, most people are murdered by someone they know – the national average is about 71% of the time – in NYC it is even higher at 80%.
    Writers can use the statistics found on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) for other information on the 8 Major Felonies: Murder, Rape, Robbery, Aggravated Assault, Burglary, Grand Larceny, GLA and Arson, to make their fiction more believable.

    3. Detective identify how to approach someone for an interrogation based on their initial interraction with the suspect and their experience with the Criminal Justice System.

    4. The power of communication is one of the key qualities that an investigator/police officer must have. When you know how to talk to people, you can get them to do things they don’t want to do, AKA: Confess!

    I hope that helps you out Sonny!
    Thanks again,
    Joe

  4. says

    I’m always lagging a bit behind on Joanna’s podcasts and just got around to this one.

    No question, just want to say thanks Joe and Joanna for what was one of the best, most interesting and most entertaining podcasts I’ve heard in a long time (and I listen to 2-3 a day).

  5. Rudolph Jean-louis says

    Hi Mr.Giacalone
    In looking for material for my paper on ( Inproving investigative interviews) for PMT 701 class this semester, there you were. Very happy to see a former professor getting the exposure that he deserves. What would be your advice to the subject of my paper? It is due on 5-11-2011. I will be happy to follow your advice.
    Best regards.
    Rudolph.

    • says

      Hi Rudolph,
      I’m glad to see one of my former and brightest students. One hot topic on how to improve investigations has to deal with Eyewitness Identification. You can tackle the three (3) types of Eyewitness ID, which I call SAL: Showups, Arrays and Lineups. There are new ways of conducting these identification procedures and are highly topical, due to misidentifications and wrongful convictions. Each state has different ways of doing them, so maybe you can suggest one standardized formula for doing them. I’d go with that!.
      Good luck,
      JG

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