As I noted in my last column, I recently celebrated my 20th year in the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, the past eight as the city’s elected prosecutor. Prior to passing the bar, I spent about five years as a police officer, meaning I have served more than 25 years in law enforcement. This month, I will comment on several changes in criminal investigation and prosecution I have witnessed over the arc of my career.
Perhaps the biggest change is the sophistication of criminal investigative techniques. When I began in law enforcement, criminal cases were most frequently built on witness statements, identification techniques like line-ups and written confessions. Now all interviews of suspects are digitally recorded, closed-circuit television cameras frequently catch portions of crimes and cellular and other electronic data is ubiquitous.
When I started as a police officer, cell phones existed, but were clunky, brick-like devices that could not access the internet. Now, cell phone evidence is utilized in almost every serious criminal case. Armed with a search warrant, police investigators can obtain a significant amount of information from a phone, ranging from location data, text messages, photographs and videos and internet searches.
Obviously, computers also present a trove of leads. To some extent, juries now expect cell phone and computer evidence to be presented by the prosecution – and, when it is unavailable, an explanation must be provided.
Digital video is also a part of many cases. While the government operates a very small number of cameras, given citizens’ worries about “Big Brother” surveillance, private businesses and citizens utilize cameras in a variety of ways. These digital eyes capture a significant amount of data, and a good detective’s first investigative step is often a digital “canvas” of cameras which may have relevant footage. Obviously, video of a crime occurring is just about the best evidence for which a detective could hope.
Over the past generation, DNA testing has been refined. While DNA is not quite as useful as television shows and movies portray, in that identifiable DNA is often not located at a crime scene, it still is an important tool that carries the benefit of scientific rigor. In addition to more accurate testing, innovative techniques have been developed, such as genetic genealogy, which the Alexandria Police Department recently employed to solve a serial rape case.
With the growing universe of potential evidence, police detectives and prosecutors have become more sophisticated as well. In addition to understanding their way around a courtroom, a competent prosecutor must have a solid foundation on a host of technical topics, ranging from firearms comparisons, DNA, cell phone data and even how the internet functions. A trial attorney who does not understand electronic evidence is at a real disadvantage in the courtroom.
Prosecution remains primarily a reactive profession, in that a crime occurs, the police investigate it and bring a charge and my office tries the case. However, particularly in the past decade, prosecutors have begun to assume a more proactive approach, establishing new programs and responses to the root causes of crime in an effort to stop antisocial behavior before it happens. Programs like the Alexandria Treatment Court and the Mental Health Initiative, which I have discussed in previous installments of this column, are labor-intensive but have been proven to make an impact.
Law enforcement professionals have also made great strides in addressing employee wellness and burnout. As a young prosecutor, I soon learned these topics were infrequently discussed and when they did make the radar, it was usually with an air of scorn. Sleepless nights were “just part of the job” and carping about the situation only showed weakness.
This attitude showed a failure of leadership. True leaders understand their employees are not mindless automatons. Compounding the problem, prosecutors frequently are exposed to the worst humanity has to offer: Homicide, serious injury and crimes against defenseless people like children and the elderly take their toll.
Change in the world of law enforcement has occurred – and is occurring. Both police and prosecutors are doing a much better job admitting the psychological toll these demanding jobs have on employees and are trying to provide coping mechanisms to aid employee wellness.
The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.