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Interview with Joseph L. Giacalone, retired NYPD Detective and author of The Criminal Investigative Function

We recently enjoyed the pleasure of a frank discussion concerning police work, with retired NYPD Detective Sergeant Joseph L. Giacalone. Joe is the best-selling author of The Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators published by Looseleaf Law, Inc. and now in its Second Edition.

As a former NYPD detective, Giacalone enjoyed many roles and has worked on hundreds of homicide, missing-person, and suicide cases. We appreciate the time he granted us in participating in this interview.

How did you begin the journey to become a police officer?

joe-giacaloneIf you would have asked my parents what I was going to be, they would have bet the house that I would have been a fireman – and lost. Growing up I always had an affinity to public service, partially because my Godfather was a fireman. It is amazing how positive role models in your life can shape who and what you become. However, when the time came to take the exam, the fire department wasn’t hiring and I ended up taking the police test. The rest, as they say, is history.

A career in policing is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. I looked at it as more of a calling to serve the citizens of the community. There are many sacrifices you have to be prepared to make. There are no weekends, holidays, birthdays, etc. You will be working all hours of the night and day.

I understood the ramifications of taking a job like this and the work that I would have to put in. This is something not too many people think about before embarking on this career.

What are two guidelines you would offer the police officer just entering the field?

  1. Never do anything that will embarrass you or your family name- your reputation is the only thing you have and once you lose it, you can never get it back.
  2. Work hard, treat people fairly and impartially enforce the law.

What should people considering a job as a police officer do or not do?

Those seeking a job in law enforcement must stay out of trouble, avoid friends that will get you in trouble or places such as nightclubs and bars that are known for trouble. Since the downturn in the economy a few years ago, many people are still looking for work. But with constrained budgets over the past few years, police departments are finally given the opportunity to hire again. However, there are so many applicants for so few jobs that departments have the ability to cherry-pick the best of the best from their examination lists. So, what I am seeing is more tests and fewer eligible candidate lists. Historically, they gave a test, promulgated a list that lasted for years. Now, they give a test, take the very top, kill the list and give another test – only to keep repeating the process.

Candidates should prepare the best way they can for the examination by taking as many practice exams as they can, studying how tests are made and what is involved. Reading comprehension, observation skills, and spatial orientation are always major components. These skills can be practiced. Today, a candidate cannot walk into a police exam and say, “All I have to do is get an 80 to get hired.” Those days are gone.

For those officers already on the job, they have to contend with the citizen journalist-activist and citizen reporters. It must be difficult trying to do the job when people are getting in your way thrusting phones in your face.

What have been some of your most interesting roles?

criminal-investigative-functionI held a number of supervisory positions within the police department, but my most satisfying work was that of the Commanding Officer of the Bronx Cold Case Squad.

I was responsible for over 4,000 open cold case homicides and missing persons cases (believed to be victims of foul play). The team worked hard to bring perpetrators to justice in those long and often frustrating investigations. If these cases were that easy, they would have been closed years ago. But, as a cold case investigator, you need to piece the facts that were missing in the original case and make them fit into the puzzle. Tracking down cases, witnesses, and eventually suspects after decades thinking they got away with it, was truly an exceptional experience.

What role is social media playing in law enforcement?

I call today’s generation the “Look at Me” cohort. They just love posting and sharing everything they do. You would think that a criminal would refrain from such behavior, but they don’t. I only wish that police departments were more careful about the way they divulge to the media how they tracked the suspects down via social media. A little OPSEC, Operational Security is in order.

Social media investigations are the biggest thing to happen to law enforcement since the discovery of what DNA can do. However, police departments are slow to adopt new techniques quite often because they are always afraid of misuse. I have been advocating a Social Media Canvass for a while now. A social media canvass is when the investigator at the scene is following the conversation on the “Electronic Street” to obtain timely and actionable intelligence. There is no longer a need to leave a detective behind at the squad room to conduct computer checks. It can all be done right from the scene.

Social media for a person looking for a job is law enforcement can pose a serious problem in the recruitment process. I don’t know of a department that is not checking social media posts by their recruits. It is something that individuals should be very careful with. Anything that can be construed as sexist, racist or anything in between could get you disqualified for the job.

What technological advances have made your job easier?

As stated before social media is a treasure trove of intelligence gathering, however, the advances in DNA technology are remarkable. Once, law enforcement needed a sample the size of a silver dollar in order to obtain a DNA profile, now all they need are six to eight cells! Something you cannot see, but can be powerful evidence in a courtroom. DNA has also been taken to the next level of criminal identification with the advent of Touch DNA and Familial DNA.

What is your most important attribute as a police officer?

My most important asset is that of a communicator. I have the unique ability to build rapport quickly and get them to tell me things that others couldn’t – sometimes at their expense. I’d like to say I sold jail a bunch of times to perpetrators. Fortunately, it is a skill that you can get better at the more you do it. My advice to new recruits is to develop those communication skills, especially the listening skills. Sometimes you have to hear the hidden meanings behind the words that people chose and what is not being said.

We thank Joseph L. Giacalone for being so generous with his time and sharing his insights and advice with our readers.