ON THE BEAT: The devil is in the details

Reedley Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division sweats the small stuff to solve crimes

Reedley Detective Givanni Medina speaking during a presentation at the May 22 Reedley Police Community Academy meeting. (Darren Fraser)
Darren Fraser
Published May 24, 2024  • 
11:00 am

REEDLEY – Fans of the “Law and Order” series may believe they understand police work from the show’s gritty realism, but detectives from the Reedley Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division explain that real investigations are far more complex and can’t be wrapped up in 60 minutes.

Week four of the Reedley Police Department Community Member’s Academy on May 22, 2024 focused on the department’s Investigations Division or Unit. Detectives Victor Perez and Givanni Medina made it clear during the opening discussion on reasons why detectives are called to crime scenes that their work can be painstakingly slow and tedious and frustrating. But never typical.

“I’ve spent 30 minutes at a crime scene,” said Perez. “I’ve spent two hours. I’ve spent eight hours. You never know.”

Medina said one of his current cases has proven to be time challenging.

“I’ve been going back and forth for three days trying to get a video,” he said.

CALLOUTS

Detectives are called out for six reasons: sex offense or crime; shooting; homicide; officer-involved shooting; child abuse; or assault with a deadly weapon. Some of these will be discussed.

Medina and Perez said sex crimes, particularly those involving children, are inherently sensitive. But they made it clear that when a child is involved, their unit takes control of the incident.

“We run the show,” Medina said.

Investigating these crimes takes a village. Detectives contact Child Protective Services (CPS). A social worker is dispatched to the scene. Teachers may be involved depending on the nature of the incident. What’s paramount is that the child is made to feel safe.

Shootings, on the other hand, require a more pragmatic approach. Perez said investigating a shooting is all about finding leads.

“Is there a victim? Are there witnesses? Evidence?” he said. Unfortunately, a lot of crime scenes yield little in the way of evidence.

“We will respond to a scene and the only thing we’ll find are two spent (bullet) shell casings,” he said. And gang shootings add another layer of frustration.

“Three years ago, I got a call,” said Perez. “A male got shot in both of his femoral arteries. Shot with an AK-47. On his back, bleeding out. But he wouldn’t say anything.” The man lived, due, in part, to Perez and his partner’s efforts to keep him from bleeding out before he got to the hospital. More on gangs will be covered later in this article.

Medina and Perez agreed that an officer-involved shooting is the most stressful callout.

“Everyone gets called out,” said Perez. Detectives will do the preliminary investigation but hand over the case to the sheriffs to ensure impartiality and neutrality. But these handoffs do not always go smoothly.

“We had a shooting (involving a RPD officer) at the border of Fresno and Tulare counties,” he said. “Police captains were arguing who should get the case. Eventually, the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office took over the entire investigation. Came to RPD. Reviewed our body cams, witnesses. Homicide detectives came out and read our officers their Miranda rights.”

What the public may not know is when a suspect dies, the case is considered a homicide under California law and winds up on the district attorney’s desk.

“It’s not fun when they take away your gun and take mug shots,” said Rivera.

CRIME SCENES

At crime scenes, detectives want answers to the following:

  • Has a perimeter been established? (meaning, is the crime scene secure?)
  • Are there witnesses or victims and have they given statements?
  • What is known about the suspect(s)?
  • Their whereabouts? DOT? (Direction of travel)
  • Is video of the crime available?
  • What physical evidence has been collected? Biologicals (blood, semen, etc.)? Clothing? Weapon(s)?

With respect to the latter, Medina said the ubiquity of cell phones has proven a boon for criminal investigations.

“We look for phones,” he said. And detectives take phones. Even phones from bystanders, provided the detectives can make a sound argument that the phones may contain evidence of the crime. Bystanders may be more amenable than suspects to allow detectives to peruse the contents of their phones. If a bystander or suspect refuses to give up a security code, detectives will keep the phone while they write up a search warrant. But, as Medina and Perez emphasized, there must be probable cause for any warrant.

“A judge won’t let me take someone’s phone just because,” said Medina.

FOLLOW-UP/SEARCH WARRANTS

Perez described this as the boring phase of an investigation.

“I was guilty of this when I worked patrol,” he said. “I would knock on doors and ask, ‘Hey, you didn’t see or hear anything last night, right?’ The person would answer no and I’d move on to the next house. Because I didn’t want to write a report. But now, as a detective, I must do a deep dive.”

Reinterviewing witnesses, recanvassing sites, rechecking for surveillance or any video. Going over the same scenes during daylight because something may have been missed at night.

Follow-up is the time when detectives write search warrants to unlock confiscated phones or to enter suspects’ homes or vehicles. But, as Perez was wont to say, the caveat is investigations are not linear and warrants may be written earlier or later during the process.

The detectives stressed, repeatedly, that every warrant must be based on probable cause. A warrant request lacking details or two paragraphs in length will not be approved. Period. But other factors come into play.

“You may catch a judge on a bad day,” said Perez. “I once had a judge tell me, ‘Call me back when you get a felony.’”

Then there is the wait.

“A judge may call back in 30 minutes or three hours,” Medina said. “They may reject the request and ask you to rewrite it. Depends on the judge.”

The remainder of the presentation was devoted to methods used for identifying suspects. This part largely adhered to what has been depicted on TV. For example, the Investigation Unit uses the six-photo array showing the suspect with five other similar looking individuals when asking a witness to make an identification. Perez said that to avoid influencing a witness, no officer involved in the case can participate in this process.

A fun fact for those of you who possess a California driver’s license. A computer program assembles photo arrays based on physical characteristics of the suspect. These photos are pulled from a database of individuals who have been arrested and have had mug shots taken. But the computer will also pull photographs from the DMV database to populate photo arrays. Which means it is possible you may have unknowingly participated in a criminal photo lineup.

In field show-up is a second method of identifying a suspect. This occurs when officers have detained a suspect in the field. A witness is driven to the location to make the identification. Eyewitness identification occurs when a witness –usually in a case involving domestic violence – furnishes officers a photograph of the suspect.

MIRANDA V BEHELER

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have…”

Most people are familiar with these opening lines of the Miranda Rights admonition. Miranda came about as a result of a 1966 case, Miranda v Arizona, in which the Supreme Court ruled that detained suspects, prior to questioning, must be informed of their constitutional right to an attorney.

What is less known is the Beheler Admonition, which may be thought of as Miranda lite.

Sergeant Guillermo Garza is the supervisor of the Investigations Division. Garza has been in law enforcement for 22 years.

According to Garza, policing comes down to posture.

“It’s about how we talk to people,” he said. “Everything is in the delivery and how we treat people.

And talking is the key to Beheler.

A police officer may casually interrogate a suspect, provided the officer informs the suspect that they are not under arrest, that they do not have to answer the officer’s questions, and that they can stop speaking and are free to leave at any time. Garza said once an officer explains these conditions, anything a suspect says is admissible in court.

REEDLEY GANGS

During the nearly three-hour presentation, Medina and Perez spoke often about gangs – gangsters, as Perez’s term for gang members. Both detectives expressed their disdain for gangs and the gang lifestyle. And both said they use the law to make gang members’ lives uncomfortable.

“When I stop a car full of gangsters,” Perez said, “I always go for the driver. It’s always the driver. The driver has a clean license. He’s the new guy. He has good insurance. He’s driving mom’s car or grandma’s car. Everyone else in the car is blasted up with tattoos. They’ve put in the work (i.e., committed crimes). They’re on probation or have had their license suspended.”

Police can legally ask all occupants to exit the vehicle. After the passengers are sitting on the curb, Perez pulls the driver aside.

“He’s 18 or 19. Jittery. I go to work on him,” he said. “I tell him he’s responsible for everything in the car. If there’s a gun in there, even if it’s not his, he’s responsible for it. I tell him I don’t want to jam him up. I only need the driver’s consent to search the car. So, I ask him, ‘Can I check the car?’ But even if he doesn’t give consent, I am still going to find a way to get into that car.”

Medina said it is not hard to spot a gang member.

“They’ll have four dots on their hand or an ‘N’ or ‘S’ or ‘13’ tat on their face. Or 93654 tats,” he said. These are their gang bona fides. Medina said when they go to prison, these tattoos prove who they are.

“It’s their ID,” said Medina. “Other prisoners will verify their identity.”

Perez said he uses the 2008 gang injunction law to make life uncomfortable for gang members.

“In 2008, there was high crime in California. The Fresno district attorney wrote the gang injunction law. It created buffer zones,” said Perez. “Anyone wearing gang insignia in this zone can be legally stopped. If an officer sees more than two gang members in this zone, that’s probable cause to stop them.”

Next week’s academy session deals with current trends and resources in policing.

Darren Fraser
Reporter