Published on September 3, 2009 | by LawNews
Prof. J. Herbie DiFonzo in Newsday
Professor J. Herbie DiFonzo was quoted and photographed for the following Newsday article.
Detective policy under fire;
Homicide investigators are no longer on call;
Levy, Dormer defend budget cut as sound idea;
Critics say delays can hinder police probes
BY KATHLEEN KERR
September 1, 2009
When Suffolk police took at least nine hours to remove the body of a man slain by a machete-wielding killer from a Brentwood street, critics blamed county budget cuts.
The budget cuts eliminated on-call pay for homicide detectives. And the homicide detectives did not respond in the early morning hours of July 20, when Edgar Villalobos, 28, of Bay Shore, was slashed to death around 12:45 a.m.
Later, shocked residents passed by the corpse on Patton Street as they went about their morning routines. Meanwhile, patrol officers, forensic experts and homicide supervisors secured the scene and collected blood evidence.
Absence hinders probe?
Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer says the police team that responded worked efficiently and that bodies often remain for hours at crime scenes. Criminal justice experts familiar with police procedures and the law agree that it’s not unusual for a corpse to remain in place for hours.
Far more troubling, they say, was the absence early on of homicide detectives, which could have hampered a search for witnesses and evidence that eluded other officers. When homicide detectives respond early – standard practice in many areas – their training can be critical to solving crimes, the experts said.
“In homicide cases, homicide detectives should arrive at the scene at the earliest time possible and that is standard procedure in major departments around the country,” said Lawrence Koblinsky, chairman of the department of sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
“It can potentially compromise a case if the [homicide] detectives arrive late,” Koblinsky said.
Budget cuts defended
But County Executive Steve Levy – noting that police already have arrested three alleged MS-13 gang members in the Villalobos slaying – defended the budget cuts and the police work that led to the arrests.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if there were 40 homicide detectives on the scene,” Levy said. “Homicide detectives do not touch the bodies; they only interview witnesses.” He added, “Witness memory may be affected if you’re talking days after, but not hours later.”
Dormer’s cost-cutting eliminated a 38-year-old practice of giving standby pay to homicide detectives to be on-call when they aren’t working. Instead, they are now called in on overtime, as needed.
Following the Brentwood incident, Dormer changed the shifts of homicide detectives. Now they are available 20 hours a day but not between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., when detectives from other squads and homicide supervisors will respond.
J. Herbie DiFonzo, a Hofstra University law professor and a former federal prosecutor, said homicide detectives should respond quickly to crime scenes and that late response “simply means lost witnesses, lost evidence, lost cases.”
DiFonzo said soon after Villalobos died, a homicide detective should have scoured the area for clues and witnesses.
“Sometimes, much of the evidence is walking down the street from you or it’s riding away on a bicycle,” DiFonzo said. “It’s the initial moment that’s important.”
But Dormer says the notion that homicide detectives look for evidence at a crime scene is “a myth” and that when they finally arrived at the Brentwood crime scene, “all they did was stand around waiting for forensic people to do their thing.”
On-calls ‘should be paid’
Jon Shane, a retired Newark, N.J., police captain and an assistant professor of criminal justice at John Jay, said homicide detectives should be paid to be on-call. “People don’t work for free and are not obligated to work for free and are not obligated to be tethered to some sort of communication device unless they’re compensated for it,” he said.
Robert Hodge, an assistant criminal justice professor at Nassau Community College, said homicide detectives are trained to take specific steps in the quest for clues and witnesses.
“All the steps could take three or four hours, so the detectives need to be there as soon as possible,” Hodge said.
Koblinsky, of John Jay, said a crime scene tells a story that homicide detectives must unravel. He said their training helps them recognize pieces of a puzzle – like a rolled-up piece of paper in a wallet found outside a crime scene.
But Dormer disagreed, saying homicide detectives’ real specialty is “the time they have to devote to follow-up.”
Dormer insists his plan to have supervisors and detectives from other squads cover homicide scenes between 2 and 6 a.m. will work and that he doesn’t anticipate problems from homicide detectives called in on overtime.
“That’s an elite unit,” Dormer said. “It’s part of the deal.”