Patrol officer gives SinC writers scoop on real crime

November 5, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Those interested in mysteries, both readers and writers, should know that a new chapter of Sisters in Crime, hereafter referred to as SinC, has formed in Sacramento. This chapter is open to both men and women, readers and writers. The only requirement for membership is the payment of dues and Sacramento SinC hasn't figured out what the dues will be yet. But don't worry, it will be small amount. SinC got off to a fast start last week with guest speaker patrol officer Dave Torgerson of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department appearing at the group's second meeting.

The young, clean-cut Torgerson was happy to answer detailed questions from a group of pleasant looking middle aged women writers with an insatiable interest in making gruesome murder mysteries as compelling and vivid as possible. He handed out a list of homicide and death scene investigation guidelines and began destroying TV-induced myths.

It soon became apparent that virtually everything you see on TV crime shows are, when it comes to the real world, inaccurate. It takes a writer to get the details.

For instance, on TV the police always roll up to the scene of the crime, parking as close as possible. Not so, says Torgerson.

"We park a block away and walk in...we don't want to disturb any evidence at the scene," he said. The department buys crime scene tape by the barrel so the cops use it liberally, cordoning off the suspect area.

Let's say a shooting takes place at an apartment complex and someone calls 911. In Sacramento County, the call goes to the sheriff's dispatch center and if injuries are suspected the call is transferred to the closest fire department so that trained paramedics can respond. The 911 operator may also ask the caller to stay put and wait to be contacted by an officer and to not touch or disturb anything at the crime scene.

Fire department personnel, too, are increasingly careful not ride roughshod over evidence when they arrive at the scene, Torgerson said.

"The first police officer on the scene keeps a chronological account of everyone who goes in and out and at what time," Torgerson said.

If a murder is suspected, the patrol officer calls the homicide detective while other patrol officers begin canvassing the neighborhood to see if anyone heard or saw anything. Another officer writes down the license plate numbers of cars in the immediate area.

One shooting can result in multiple crime scenes, with police officers sometimes sent to the hospital with a wounded victim, while others remain at the apartment with a body.

Stories have to be collected from several witnesses. "We try to separate witnesses if there are more than one so they don't contaminate each other's story or account," he said. "You direct them to sit in different places."

"Here's a mistake you always see on TV," said Torgerson. "If there's a body, someone throws a blanket over it." But not in real life. Throwing a blanket over the body only serves to contaminate it further. And here's another mistake: In real life, no one draws a chalk mark around the body. The body is left in place, as is, with nothing covering the face and staring eyes, until the investigation is complete. At that point, the coroner's office removes the body. No chalk marks are left behind.

Want more details? OK, let's say you have some blood-soaked clothing. "Wet clothing goes into a paper bag to dry, not a plastic bag or it will mold."

Someone asked Torgerson if the media causes problems at crime scenes, another TV myth. "No," he said. "When a crime scene is secured, an area is usually reserved for the media, most of whom are not the obnoxious, pushy types portrayed on the tube."

He also destroyed a stereotype about ill-trained, poorly paid police officers, at least locally.

"California has the highest-paid, best-trained peace officers in the United States," he said.

The next meeting of SinC will be on Saturday, Nov. 18, 1 p.m., at a new mystery book store in Sacramento called Snoopers, 5990 14th Ave. Mystery readers and writers are welcome. Who knows? You might meet Dave Torgerson.

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