January-February 2008

Officer training

Chris Herndon

Investigator in the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office

One county’s efforts to train its local law enforcement on tough cases.

If you are completely happy with the way that the officers in your jurisdiction conduct investigations and interviews, read no further. If you are in fact frequently frustrated with small and large mistakes that have to be fixed at trial, I may have a solution for you.

About three years ago, at the behest of our DA, John Bradley, Assistant DA Todd Nickle, Assistant DA Shawn Dick, and I began a training program for our local agencies to update them on caselaw, investigative protocols, and emerging technology for conducting investigations. Within a relatively short time, and for almost no cost at all, we have trained approximately 1,600 officers, and we have had to move into a room capable of holding over 100 students for our classes. The officers appreciate hearing the actual prosecutors who are prosecuting the cases they file, and it is a great way for the elected DA to remain in touch with the local law enforcement in his community.

How it started

We decided to conduct this training because of two areas of frustration with incoming cases: how child abuse investigations were conducted by different agencies and non-custodial police interviews beginning with the officer reading Miranda warnings to the suspect. In addition, agencies tend to have turnover in the CID units, and new detectives are often thrust into child sexual abuse investigations and other crimes against persons with little or no idea of the methods available to them. It always amazes me how officers shake their heads in our classes and think to themselves, “I wish I had thought of that before.” We offer a mechanism where these new detectives can come and hear what our preferences are in their investigative protocols and how they can make their cases better from the start.

The prosecutors are responsible for the material and teaching, and I handle TCLEOSE requirements, registrations, and logistics. My first task was to find an agency to be our training provider for TCLEOSE-reporting purposes. Lt. David McGarah at the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office agreed to act as our training provider, and he has reported many hundreds of hours to TCLEOSE for us in that capacity.

The next task was to build an e-mail database so we couuld advertise the training. I began with the training officers at our county agencies and expanded to the constables and other officers we deal with. Shortly thereafter, I found out that the training announcements were going out on a statewide law enforcement e-mail. That was a great benefit in terms of advertising our training, but then we wondered whether we were straying from our original intention of providing the training for officers in our county. In retrospect, it has turned out well, allowing officers from other jurisdictions to attend, and I have never had to turn away an officer from our county because we did not have room. In addition to the great rapport that we built with other agencies, allowing outside officers to attend has actually been a great benefit to our investigators when we need something from outside of our area. It’s not uncommon for me to have a business card of a contact in another city or another county when one of our investigators needs something. The e-mail list continues to grow, and we have had officers from as far away as Fort Worth attend our training. We have even had our local TCLEOSE field agent attend and introduce himself as an additional resource that officers probably did not know existed in their area.

A learning process

We began with a class we call Confessions, which covers custodial and non-custodial interviews, video and audio tape interviews, in-car cameras as interview tools, controlled phone calls, and jail phone calls. It is amazing how many officers do not realize what a valuable tool they have in their car for recording confessions at the scene of an offense, especially before the defendant has had time to formulate a story. Our audiences were fairly small at first, and we promised an individual class to an agency more than one time where only three people attended (and two of them had to leave to take calls).

We learned that the key to getting officers to attend was to have a great PowerPoint, to show lots of actual video clips of scenes and interviews, and to conduct the training at a central location. We keep our classes short, normally about three to four hours, and the training is free. I can’t tell you how many evaluations I have read where the comments are extremely grateful for offering this training for free; many law enforcement agencies feel that it is the officers’ responsibility to get their necessary training hours, so they don’t provide it readily. Our training program not only helps the officers receive the training that we wish they had, but it also helps to build really positive relationships with our officers and to make them feel comfortable when they need to call us. One other benefit is that the training hours we provide does not subtract from their training budgets. Every officer in this area has a chance to receive almost their entire 40 additional training hours, free of charge, with training that is reflective of current caselaw. This year we will have reported approximately 30 hours of training for 600 officers, with some additional hours added through DWI training conducted by TDCAA, again at no cost to the agencies.

Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Earls joined our training team the second year, and her enthusiasm and experience prosecuting child sexual abuse cases was invaluable. Our classes rapidly expanded to other topics, and we now have classes on confidential informants, advanced search and seizure, adult sex crimes, criminal interdiction, and traffic stop.

One of the other benefits that we have seen is the ability to make officers aware of the technology available to assist them in their investigations. We cover protocols in using controlled phone calls, jail phone calls, visitation recordings, and in-car camera usage. One of our most popular clips is from an officer who had attended our training and used his camera to record three suspects dividing the blame for the running disturbance that they had just created. We also play incriminating clips from jail phone calls and controlled phone calls and point out how these recordings made our cases so strong at trial. The actual phone call and video clips used in the PowerPoint are very powerful to get our message across, and the officers really enjoy seeing someone from their agency used as a great example in our class.

We have also had the opportunity to bring in guest speakers for our classes, and they have been well received. Lt. Walt Goodson from the Texas Department of Public Safety taught the polygraph segment of our Investigating Adult Sex Crimes class, and registered nurse Vangie Barefoot did a section on SANE exams in that class as well.

We have a bold plan for 2008, and one of the projects we have in mind is to conduct a Crimes Against Children school, incorporating speakers from the Shaken Baby Alliance and our Child Advocacy Center (CAC). Through the efforts of Bonnie Armstrong at the Shaken Baby Alliance, we are also going to expand our credit for training to Child Protective Services as well. We have plans to expand our Crimes Against Children school so that it brings in law enforcement agencies from across the State, as well as CPS and CAC staffs.

You might ask yourself how we have time to do this. It is an organized effort that we begin in January. Jennifer, Todd, and I sit down with our trial calendars and plot out dates that will work for the three of us. Jennifer and Todd have opposing trial weeks which make this even harder, but our goal is to have one class a month. The training staff also receives a salary stipend paid through asset forfeiture funds to help offset a great deal of the after-hours work required to put everything together. Through trial and error, we have found that Fridays tend be better for the officers and for us. Again, we try to keep our class length three or four hours, so that even if an officer has worked all night, he can usually make it to class. (For those having a hard time, we even serve Starbucks coffee and donuts.) We give a test and evaluation after every class to comply with TCLEOSE requirements, and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office training staff assists me with our reporting and record keeping. We spend very little money to conduct our classes, and in fact the largest portion that we spend is on refreshments. We use one of the larger courtrooms in our building, and it comfortably seats more than 100 officers. We also encourage participation with giveaways of the Quick Law laminated guides (sold by TDCAA) and other books from TDCAA to maintain interest and expand officers’ access to good legal advice.

If you are thinking of starting a program in your area, don’t be afraid. The program can be as large or small as you like. The important thing is that officers see that we are actually doing something to help them and their cases, and that pays off for everyone in the end. I continually see comments on evaluations where officers are grateful to know that we want to help them, and you will definitely see the training pay off in the cases that are filed.