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  • Writer's pictureLynn Bohart

INTERVIEW WITH CHIEF REX D. CALDWELL (Ret.)




BIOGRAPHY

Chief Caldwell served as Police Chief for the City of Mukilteo for nearly five years. He worked more than 29 years with the Kirkland Police Department, rising from Patrol Officer to Captain including a two-year period as Commander of the Basic Law Enforcement Academy.

Upon retirement in late 2015, he became the program manager for the Building Public Trust Initiatives and was later promoted to Deputy Director. He taught a variety of courses including Blue Courage, Understanding Perceptions and Bias, Pursuit Decision Making, Crisis Intervention, and Tactical Thinking. In April 2018, Chief Caldwell travelled to Mongolia to present courses to the Mongolian National Police Academy. Rex is an associate professor for Shoreline Community College in the Social Sciences Department.


Chief Caldwell’s personal philosophy is “Leave Things Better Than You Found Them,” which he demonstrates through service to various charities including as a Board Member for Special Olympics Washington and as a member of the Executive Council for Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) for Special Olympics. He was the 2017 recipient of the LETR International John Carion “Unsung Hero” Award. Chief Caldwell also had the honor to represent Washington State as a member of the LETR Final Leg Team for the March 2019 World Games in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E carrying the Flame of Hope across all seven Emirates.


INTERVIEW


Lynn: Rex, just as the TV show CSI has distorted the public’s understanding on how forensics work in the real world (such as getting DNA test results back in mere hours), how have crime shows and murder mystery novels distorted the public’s view on how many homicide detectives there are? For instance, I think it’s common for people to look at cases like the Green River killer and believe there are dozens of trained homicide detectives just waiting around for the next case.


Rex: I'd love to expound on the idea that there are large numbers of "Homicide Detectives" across the country. Only big agencies have the number of cases to support such specialists. A statistic I’ve heard many times is that approximately 75 % of all the 18,000 police agencies in the US have fewer than 50 personnel. Of the 300 in Washington, only a dozen or so have more than 100 cops. And a single agency may only have one "murder" per decade.


During my five years at Mukilteo, we did not have any, not even a vehicular homicide/fatal crash. Many times, there may be a team of investigators from multiple agencies that come together to manage a large or serious crime. A list of specialists in crime scene processing, fingerprinting, public information, photography, interviewing, and more is maintained by departments so that when needed they can be brought together. This helps defray costs and duties across a county or group, making it easier to handle "The Big One" when it hits. 


Lynn: I suspected that may be true. But I know that often times people who investigate murder become emotionally involved. Given that you didn’t have to handle that many murders, what’s the toughest lesson you learned when working on a murder case or any case?


Rex: The idea that one can be “professionally detached” is essentially a myth. It is nearly impossible to separate your “self” from a case on several levels. There is a great deal of personal and professional investment in an investigation. It's the old adage of “wherever you go, there you are.” With apologies to Jane Austen, humans bring their pride and prejudice to everything they do.


The hundreds or thousands of hours of training and experience that precedes even being selected to be an investigator is a large investment of one’s limited time. Honing skills and proving oneself in a fast paced and competitive workplace is essentially the same across any number of professions, to which most people can relate. An investigator or detective position is usually a promotion in prestige and pay for the majority of police departments. Because the stakes are so high for victims’ families, society at large, and  the accused suspects, erring on a case is a sure way to lose that status, so people are invested in doing their best work. Once attained, those positions are hard to walk away from.


This investment can also be very personal. There’s not only the deep desire to succeed and do a good job to ensure justice, but it can also be emotionally draining when immersed in other people’s tragedy. And having a large case load can make it difficult to prioritize work so that when new cases come in, older cases can languish. This can lead to personal frustration and distract you from other important areas of life while you’re ruminating on case work.


Lynn: I can imagine that, like any job, there is a lot of pressure in law enforcement, not only to succeed but in juggling your emotions. Without naming names, what’s the toughest case you were involved with?


Rex: The toughest case to deal with emotionally was a murder involving two young women and two small children who were killed by a neighbor. The entire incident was so pointless; just a guy who was attracted to a married woman whose husband was deployed. When the woman rejected his advances, he killed her and her kids, along with a friend. He then burned the house down. Unfortunately for him, he left a ton of evidence behind, including video of him buying a gas can and fuel a mile away an hour before the fire. He was quickly caught, arrested, and convicted. But four lives were lost, families were destroyed, and he’s in prison for life.


The investigative team developed an amazing relationship between the police department and the District Attorney’s office, which led to the successful outcome, but it was challenging as most of us had families and kids of our own. In this case, the overwhelming stupidity and heartlessness of the crime is evidence of evil in the world and has stayed with me to this day.

I have also investigated dozens of vehicular manslaughter and serious injury collisions which are also tough to deal with emotionally, as the violence and abruptness of how someone’s life can “end” can be staggering.


Lynn: Since you’ve worked on a range of different types of cases, including traumatic accidents, is there a difference between working on a murder case and any other type of criminal case?


Rex: Respectfully, the difference in working on a murder case is the outcome – the homicide itself. There are more cases involving trauma, injury, and victimization where no one dies. Cases wherein people are harmed, sometimes to the point of long-term comas, hospitalizations, severe loss to their livelihoods and psyche, can be very traumatic for everyone involved from the victim and their family to their larger community and even the investigators.


An important lesson I learned early on was to investigate every crime scene, no matter how “minor” it may seem, to the fullest possible extent. Even simply collecting fingerprints at a car prowl/break-in is good practice for evidence processing and handling. On the off chance that someone interrupts the break in and gets seriously injured or killed, prints from previous crimes may help ID a suspect, even one who panicked when confronted and acted violently without intent to harm someone. Plus, honing skills such as lifting prints, photography, tool mark processing, or interviewing neighbors (canvassing an area) during the relatively slow time of a static crime scene and much lower pressure can pay off in the long run.

Every single person deserves the attention and skills an investigator brings to even the most “routine” crime. Besides, as I said, an agency may see one homicide per decade while dealing with thousands of lesser events in between so practice and prep can be maintained.


Lynn: Unlike how they’re portrayed in TV crime shows, solving any type of criminal case takes time, sometimes a lot of time. How much of your job did you take home with you? Whether it was a murder case or other type of investigation, how did it affect your everyday life?


Rex: A major case can interfere with home life in a number of ways. For instance, a phone call at 3 AM forcing you to drive out and investigate a homicide or other violent felony interrupts sleep, family plans and obligations, interferes with diet and exercise which are important for health, and can really jolt your personal relationship rhythms.


The emergency call to respond immediately can turn into a 36-hour day without much break in a very emotionally draining atmosphere. These types of crimes can lead to long periods of difficulty while looking for clues, processing scenes, hoping for breaks, or even simply standing outside a crime scene to protect it for hours on end keeping looky-loos and the press from contaminating your environment. Exhaustion and frustration can be emotionally draining on the mind, body, and spirit. Then there can be the long waits for evidence examination from crime labs, looking for a suspect on the lam, dealing with upset community members and local government. And these cases can drag on for months or years waiting for court and appeals and more.


Family expectations and responsibilities don’t pause while one is on the job, especially when interrupted as above. Spouses/partners still have to go to work, kids still need to go to school and have soccer practice, pets still need feeding and care, yards still need mowing. All of one’s best laid plans can come to a screeching halt with one bad act by someone you’ve never met having a bad day.


Lynn: Given everything you just explained, are officers taught how to emotionally handle things like murder or other traumatic cases?


Rex: I am second generation in the business of law enforcement. My dad started as a police officer in 1962 when I was a toddler, and I started in 1981. In the past, there was little to no consideration of the toll this work took on families or the individual. “Suck it up” was a common refrain and joining in on “choir practice” (drinking after work with comrades who supposedly understood what you were going through) was not infrequent, especially after a tough shift.


The gallows’ humor and personal isolation took such a toll on police officers that leaders, both bosses and peers, began programs to enhance the training. Many academies now offer classes and presentations by experienced people to help understand expected challenges and offer skills to address how to deal with what may be coming. One such program is Blue Courage, which focuses on strengthening four areas of an officer’s life: emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental. I was a paid instructor for Blue Courage for many years. There are several companies and consultants working on Emotional Intelligence for police officers today.

Specific to this question of managing a murder, though, there is more of a focus on being a well-rounded and stable human who is able to deal with all of life’s challenges more than just one type of case. However, investigator classes will talk about trauma, tragedy, dealing with people, and so forth to get one prepared for what you may see since everyone reacts differently.


Lynn: You’ve helped me so much when you’ve vetted the law enforcement angle to my books. If you had one piece of advice for a mystery author, what would it be?


I would tell writers to write your story in the way you want and in the voice you choose. Develop your characters, themes, and plot lines so readers experience them in the way you imagine. Once you’ve determined what you want to say, then it’s time to reach out to “experts” to answer your questions or flesh out the details.


I’ve collaborated with several authors on fictional novels and have worked as a public information officer for hundreds of print, radio, and TV news/human interest stories to provide information or even just opine of police topics. My goal is to provide information more than guide or direct a story.


BONUS QUESTION:


Lynn: Since you work with a number of authors and read a lot yourself, what’s the biggest mistake you think mystery authors make?


Rex: I think there are a few common mistakes mystery writers make. First off, trying to be too clever with plot twists based on overly obscure cues. For instance, if a writer says someone was wearing a hat on page two, you can't make that the giant reveal on page 500 with zero connection between them.


Another would be at the opposite end of giving it all away time and again throughout a story. I want to think my way through a story and look for cues but don't need to be spoon-fed. Finally, stretching a story well beyond reasonable proportions just to fill up a word count or add pages of unnecessary exposition. I don't really need the in-depth historical chemical development of the composition of a concrete block in ancient or medieval architecture through the industrial age to modern manufacturing processes just to set up somebody getting bonked with a brick. Now, having said that, if that brick was from some collection of a museum and left a chemical trace that is part of a forensic plot line, set it up. To close, for me it's about balance. 


Lynn: Wow, I couldn’t agree more and hope to God I don’t make those mistakes.

Thanks, Rex. You have been such a source of information and inspiration to me, and you have helped immeasurably in making my stories more realistic. I’m sure mystery and true crime fans will appreciate your insights. Thanks, too, for being my first interview for Let’s Talk About Murder.

 

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