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