Interview with a Homicide Detective

Some weeks ago, I sent a general interview request to the Helsinki Police Department’s Violent Crimes Division, asking them if one of their homicide detectives might be interested in talking to me for a blog post.

Luckily for me, I received a reply from one detective who promised to help me out and be interviewed. There was one important condition, though: no names would be mentioned, neither in our conversation nor in this ensuing blog post.

I traveled to the police building in Helsinki in early June, excited by the prospect of talking to someone who’s job is true crime. I wasn’t disappointed: I was met by a polite, very intelligent gentleman who shook my hand and welcomed me with a friendly smile.

We went to an interrogation room (perfect setting, eh?), I turned on the recorder, and the conversation started to flow.

Most of the questions I asked him were submitted by followers at my Instagram account; thanks to everyone who took part!


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(My interviewee’s ID wallet. Detectives wear this inside the police building and in their field investigations.)

1) What’s your background? What led you to becoming a cop?

Without going into too much detail, my professional background is in the civilian field, where I worked before becoming a cop.

I was 26 years old when I applied for police academy, and was accepted. I’m 44 years old now.

Of course, it requires a certain inner “incitement” to want to be a cop: you have to have the desire to want to try a difficult job like this. And I myself knew from the very start that this particular field of police work [homicide division] was where I was aiming at, where I wanted to work.

As for other reasons, let’s just say that death has always followed by my side ever since my childhood. I’m sure that has played a part in directing me towards a job like this.

2) In terms of police hierarchy, how does one technically get to the position of homicide detective?

The path to being a detective in the Finnish police force does not correlate with the path portrayed in television shows, where they first work the beat, then end up a detective. The role of a detective within the Finnish police is also not similar to the role of a detective in, say, the US police.

Oftentimes the journey to becoming a detective does indeed follow the standard beat-cop-then-detective route, but the Finnish Police also trains people to go straight to the detective bureau. Things have changed quite a bit in this regard since I became a police officer.

3) If somebody wants to work as a homicide detective, what kind of advice would you give them?

The most important thing is life experience: you have to understand life and the human mind before you can do this job successfully. When you know what happens out there in the world, it’s a lot easier to deal with what you see and experience in this job.

It’s a good idea to do something else first, before you become a cop. If you’re overly career-oriented, and enter police academy directly after your military service, your life experience will be quite minimal. And this can backfire on you when you have to actually deal with human beings through this job.

4) Take us through an average day in your job!

There are different kinds of days in my work.

You have days when you’re the detective “on call”, and on those days you work from 7 in the morning to around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, when the next shift comes in. On these days, you’re out in the field responding to calls and cases that come in that day. Once your shift is over, the day is done.

You also have “office days”, which is when you do paperwork, carry out interrogations, communicate with individuals arrested for crimes, et cetera.

When a case hits you that demands greater investigative intensity, days can, of course, stretch quite a bit beyond the usual. But in general, we work during office hours, though we of course also have weekend shifts.

-) does one detective investigate one case, or are cases delegated from one shift to another?

There is always a lead investigator, but usually, in the crucial initial stages of an investigation, extra hands are needed. And bigger cases are investigated by more detectives – the bigger the case, the more investigators work on it.

But, ultimately one lead investigator will put the various pieces together and write a report of the entire case.

5) How long are investigations in general? Does it vary a lot?

It varies quite a bit. If you have someone in custody, there’s only so long you can keep them, and in cases like that the investigation has to be carried out quicker. We’re talking months here, usually.

On average, I’d say an investigation lasts from around a month to around four months.

6) In terms of the “categories” of cases currently on your table, how many of them are killings, how many are assaults and batteries, and how many are missing persons cases?

Missing persons cases flow in regularly, especially over Summer. Inquests are also an integral part of our job [determining the cause of someone’s death. -admin]; I have around fifty inquests on my table right now. As for killings, I have one “open” investigation on my table right now. And also, I have some battery and assault -cases under investigation.

-) You mentioned that Summers create a peak in missing persons cases. Why?

Well, people are on a roll. *laughs* Weekends tend to stretch deep into the next week, and relatives and family members file reports of their lost lambs. But usually, these types of people are eventually found.

People who actually disappear, in the truer sense of the word, are fairly rare, but occasionally you run into cases like that, too. These types of cases can happen at any time during the year. These types of missing persons are usually found drowned in lakes, or dead in forests, et cetera.

7) What is it like to encounter the loved ones of victims? Family, friends, those types of people.

You encounter different kinds of reactions from different kinds of people. There’s really no way to prepare for their reaction, because it can be essentially anything.

Delivering the news of a person’s death or disappearance to their loved ones is one of the most challenging aspects of this job. But there’s a saying I think goes well with this aspect of the job: “A job chooses its workers”. In other words, this job tends to appeal to people who can deal with powerful and difficult emotions. So this aspect of the job is not overwhelmingly difficult for me.

It all comes down to the one’s ability to handle death, and all the various phenomena associated with it.

8) What is the strangest case you’ve ever worked?

*thinks for a long time* There are many of them. Life is bizarre. It’s really difficult for me to pick one. I’ve worked on some sexual crime investigations, and I guess you could say that that’s the area of crime where the “strangest” cases are.

But on average, it’s really difficult for me to pick one case, because there are so many strange cases in all these various “categories”. There are strange suicides, strange murders, and strange incidents in this job in general. Most people don’t even know how bizarre some of the things that happen out there can be. You see a slice of life in this job that most people can’t even imagine.

9) What is the average Finnish suicide like? Is there such a thing?

There are several ways people commit suicides. The most common in Finland is probably hanging, followed by an overdose of medication, throwing oneself under a train, et cetera.

As for the types of people who commit suicides, I’d say that people who have lost control of their lives, and can’t find another solution or way forward. Beyond that, we have all kinds of suicide victims: men, women, old people, young people. From 15-year-olds to pensioners.

-) from the point of view of a detective, do you think suicides are increasing or decreasing in Finland?

From my point of view, during Spring and early Summer, there’s a peak in the number of suicides. I’m not a statistician so I can’t say why, but I think it’s because many people are depressed over the dark Winter, and they have their hopes set on Spring and sunshine, that the emerging Summer will save them from depression. Then, when that doesn’t happen, they feel hopeless, and suicide becomes a prevalent idea in their minds.

10) Is there any one case that has stuck with you for a long time, or are you able to simply move on from one case to the next?

I’d be lying if I said that nothing ever sticks with me, but on average, you can’t get stuck with these matters; it’s unprofessional. If you’re a detective, and you notice that you’re overly bothered by the things you see and experience in your work, it’s time to get a new job. And I personally leave work-related matters at the workplace; I don’t carry them home with me.

11) Is there a certain “category” of cases that tend to stay with you longer than others?

I know you expect me to say “murders” or “crimes related to children”, or something like that. *laughs* But, frankly, my job is to investigate these cases, and the work needs to get done, so in terms of what types of things cause me stress, I’d say I stress more over things like investigative strategies: “What do I ask at an interrogation tomorrow? How do I approach this case? What should I do to break this case?” Those are the types of things I might think about at night when I lay awake in bed.

12) When you are assigned to a case, do you have to start everything over every time (sort of “re-invent the wheel” every time), or are there enough investigative tools and strategies you can apply each time to get you started?

Certain basic things are done each time. Of course it depends on the nature of the case: if it’s a simple case, there’s no need to overdo the investigation, even if it’s a homicide case.

The hardest ones are so called “dark homicides”, cases where you only have a body, and essentially no other relevant information. Those are the types of cases where you have to start anew each time, and they take a much longer time to get solved.

13) What are the sort of basic tools in your job? In other words, when a doctor receives a new patient, he/she will begin by analyzing the patient’s pulse, take a blood sample, listen to the patient’s heartbeat, etc. What is on a homicide detective’s “check list”?

The first thing to do is to talk to the people involved. Family, friends, witnesses. That’s where I start an investigation.

Technical investigation will proceed at the same time. Material relating to the crime is collected and analyzed, and the detective has to decide what is pertinent, what needs further analysis, and what is not so pertinent.

But talking to the people involved is the key element. You have to start by asking “What happened? Why did it happen?”

14) If you look at TV shows and films, the role of DNA in crime investigation is often emphasized. How useful is DNA in real homicide investigation? Can you get a DNA analysis any time you ask?

DNA is a huge help. It plays a huge role in homicide investigations, and it’s importance is constantly increasing. DNA is a little problematic in the sense that it can be contaminated fairly easily. But still, it’s a big help in my work.

I can get a DNA analysis anytime I ask for one. A special laboratory at the NBI [“National Bureau of Investigations”, essentially Finland’s equivalent to the American FBI. -admin] is responsible for most DNA analyses. Our own unit here decides what we send them, then they do the scientific work, and send us their findings.

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(NBI crime lab in Vantaa, Finland. Photo: Compic / Markku Ojala)

15) When you’re collecting evidence and investigating a case, how much do you reflect on whether something will be permissible in court?

You have to take that perspective into account. For example, the investigation report we send forward has to lay out the case and pertaining evidence in a simple, easily understandable form, because you’re ultimately not writing it for yourself – you’re writing it for the court, for the prosecutor, and for the attorneys. So you have to reflect on the material from that perspective.

16) As for unsolved cases, have you personally ever investigated a homicide that ended up going unsolved?

I myself have never had that happen to me, but there are battery and assault cases that are unsolved on my desk. But homicides… No wait, there is one! But that’s just one case over a period of over 15 years, and I’m talking about the “scoreboard” of the entire unit here, not just my own cases.

17) Are there factors that are similar all across the board of unsolved homicides? Some elements that make them particularly difficult to solve?

In some sense, yes. If the victim is a totally normal person with no criminal background, no friends or partners who have criminal backgrounds, no ties to the underworld, the homicide can be particularly hard to solve. What adds to the difficulty is if the person has been dead for some time before he/she is found: that makes it harder to analyze the body and the surroundings.

18) The stereotype about the average Finnish homicide goes something like this: X and Y are drinking. They’re both super-drunk, and haven’t eaten in a while, which makes their blood sugar level low, causing aggression. At some point, Y makes some innocent comment that X interprets as an insult. In the heat of the moment, X stabs Y, and Y dies. The next morning, X doesn’t even remember what happened. How truthful would you say this stereotype is?

It’s quite truthful – it often goes exactly like that. What’s much more rare is when two total strangers meet, and a killing occurs. They happen, but they’re very rare. The scenario you just described is a lot more common.

19) How about Finland’s professional criminals and their circles, are there cases where a person is killed for “business”?

Yes, it happens. Plus there are foreign gangs and criminals who now operate in Finland, and they add to these statistics, too.

The violence in Finland’s professional criminal underworld isn’t nearly on the level of what’s going on in, say, the South American drug gangs, but these professional “hits” do happen here as well.

20) Are you ever faced with situations where someone is clearly guilty of a crime, but the evidence simple is not enough to convict him/her?

Yes. The only thing you can do is just try everything you can, but if the evidence is not enough, all you can do is accept it. You can’t take this work personally. Some cops DO take situations like that personally, and it just makes their lives harder.

21) Does a Finnish detective ever come across these “confessers”, people who try to paint themselves as guilty of crimes they really had nothing to do with?

Yes, we have those here as well. Especially in bigger cases that are featured in the media.

As for why they do it, I think it’s just a matter of need for attention: they want officials and the public to notice them, it gives them a sense of meaning.

22) How much of detective work is intuition and how much is the daily grind of collecting evidence and analyzing it?

Intuition of course plays a part in this, but the thing about intuition is that sometimes it can be really strong, and still lead you on the wrong track. *laughs* But intuition is oftentimes correct, too.

I personally have noticed that intuition plays a big part in cases where we receive a report of a homicide, and go to the scene to investigate. Then when I get to the scene of the supposed crime, I get an intuitive feeling, just from a few glimpses around the scene, that it wasn’t a homicide at all, but much more likely a suicide. When I investigate the scene further, I notice that my intuition was correct.

But overall, this isn’t a game of intuition, but of rigorous examination, investigation, and analysis.

23) How often are cases solved on the basis of one piece of evidence, the proverbial “smoking gun”?

Cases are rarely solved on the basis of one piece of evidence. More often than not, it’s a matter of causalities: one thing connects to another, and so on. The result is a sum of various small parts that, when connected, point in a specific direction.

24) Forensic science is developing all the time. Are criminals coming up with counter-measures?

Well, in general, criminals are aware of new investigative techniques and forensic science. But they will often forget these things in the heat of the moment, when committing a crime. Some of them use gloves more these days to avoid leaving behind evidence. But overall, these counter-measures are fairly minimal and ineffective.

25) Do you ever come across criminals, murderers in particular, who genuinely cold and ruthless?

If we talk about things like serial killers, we don’t have too many of them here [in Finland]. But we do have them. For example, lately there’s been a case in the news that revolves around a genuine serial killer.*

We also have professional criminals, whose “jobs” involve violence. These people are called “torpedoes”, and our unit has had cases where the perpetrator has been just such a “torpedo”. So they do exist.

penttilä

(*The detective is referring to the case of Mikael Penttilä, a serial killer who strangles his victims. He has been in the news lately after yet another murder attempt).

26) Is there something you wish people would know more about, with regard to your work or the lessons you’ve learned in life in general?

I’m hesitant about giving advice to anyone, but… *thinks for a long time* One think I would advice people to do more is use common sense. That’s one thing that’s totally missing in many of the circumstances that produce the cases I work on. Regardless of educational or social background, one thing that connects many of my “clients” is that they’ve acted with no regard for common sense.

27) Has this job changed you? For example, do you avoid certain kinds of movies nowadays, having seen what you have seen?

I’m sure it has changed me. A job always changes a person. But I still like the kinds of things I always liked. So yeah, my job has changed me I’m sure, but not in the sense that I would avoid certain things nowadays.

28) How do you deal with the darker side of this job? Through sports, talking to colleagues, something like that?

I simply try to do things that I enjoy. I haven’t encountered a case that would have proven too difficult to deal with – yet! Let’s see if that happens one day. *laughs* But, like I said before, this is a job that attracts certain kind of people, people who are able to deal with the darker side of things.

29) What kind of a person should NOT apply to be a homicide detective?

The kind of person who takes cases personally. A person who wants to save the world through this job will not last for a very long time.

There have been people like that here in our unit as well, and they’ve usually quickly realized that this job is too much for them, so they’ve and been re-assigned.

30) The law forms the basis of your job. Is the law always 100 percent sacred, or have you ever had to “twist” it a bit to solve a case?

Police work is closely monitored, and everything is based on the law. This is an absolute, unconditional fact that no police officer can get around. Sometimes it makes things more difficult, sometimes the law might produce situations where it’s difficult to function as a detective, but this is how it is. Certain new directives and sections in the law have made this work even more difficult nowadays, but you have to follow the law nevertheless, otherwise this job would be pointless.

31) How are police officers trained in the law?

They teach you the law in police academy, but us cops are not jurists; I often have to pull out a law book to look things up. Judicial oversight is more the responsibility of the police chiefs. But of course, the law dictates what I can and cannot do in my area of work, so I have to be aware of it, too.

32) What kind of a cooperation exists between a detective and the prosecutor?

The cooperation is pretty seamless. We consult each other all the time about cases, and hold meetings between cops and prosecutors to discuss various matters. This cooperation doesn’t exist in all cases, but in many cases it’s very important.

33) The cliche is that detectives hate defense lawyer. Is this true?

*laughs* It’s not true. There are good and bad lawyers. Some are very pro-police, others are very anti-police. Here in Finland nowadays, the defense lawyer is almost always present at interrogations, for example, especially if the crime is serious. Ten years ago, this was different: the lawyer was not present back then.

-) Does the defense lawyer ever tell the client to “shut up”, like in the movies?

Very rarely. In fact, usually they might do the very opposite and advice their client to be honest and come clean.

But sure, sometimes you come across what we call “crook lawyers”, who try everything they can to make the police work more difficult.

34) What goes through your mind when you’re face to face with a killer? Do you think there’s something categorically “different” about them, something “evil” that can be sensed by just being in their presence?

This would imply a true psychopath, but the people I come across in this job are rarely psychopaths. A genuinely “evil” culprit is rare. Even with regard to the more serious offenders, rather than psychopathy, the problem more often is that they simply have a totally different kind of a moral compass: something that’s forbidden to the rest of us might be “OK” in their minds.

A real psychopath can usually be recognized by their attitude towards their crime. They’re emotionally cold, indifferent towards other people’s suffering.

But usually, the culprits of crimes feel very remorseful of their deeds after they’ve sobered up, and the full realization of what they’ve done hits them.

35) How big a part does alcohol play in Finnish assaults and killings?

An enormous role.

-) In your opinion, how could this be changed?

People should drink less, and leave that knife at home when they leave the house. If people followed this advice, we’d have a lot less killings. Because the formula is that someone drinks too much, and when the night doesn’t go as they planned, they pull that knife out of their pocket and use it to try to solve whatever problem they have.

-) in your opinion, what goes into drunk people when this happens? Why does that knife come out?

They lose their temper over something. One thing culprits often mention in interrogations is that moment when everything “blacks out”: it’s like something went “click” in their head, and after that, they just blacked out with rage, so they did whatever it is they did.

36) Any regrets over choices you’ve made in your life or work?

No regrets. It’s good as it is.

37) On average, how accurate are TV shows and films that feature police work?

Sometimes very inaccurate, sometimes very accurate – it varies quite a bit from show to show and from writer to writer. Just like with books.

If you want authenticity, you should always be aware of who is behind a show or movie.

-) What would you recommend as realistic books or TV shows?

If you’re interested in authentic portrayals of detectives working at violent crimes units, I would recommend the Finnish Marko Kilpi or Matti Yrjänä Joensuu. Joensuu was one of our detectives here! His books are mostly set in the 1970s and 1980s, but they’re still fairly accurate, and still reflect the work of a violent crimes detective quite well.

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(One of Joensuu’s books. This one is based on a true story.)

38) What’s the most horrible crime scene you’ve ever been at?

*thinks for a long time* A block of flats with stairs going up to the second floor. Below the stairs lies the body of a victim who has been beaten into a totally unrecognizable state. I go upstairs, and the hallway is covered in blood. As I enter a room, inside I see pools and sprays of blood everywhere.

-) We agreed not to mention names or go too deep into spesifics, but let’s say that in general, what may have caused such a bloodbath?

Alcohol may have a played a part, and contributed to the events. The culprit, still drunk, may have tried to move the body somewhere to hide it, but may have failed.

39) Have you ever had to investigate family killings, where a parent has killed their entire family, including the children?

I haven’t had such cases, but I have investigated a case where the children were spared, but one parent killed the other.

40) These family killings are quite shocking and incomprehensible; it seems to absurd and crazy that someone would kill their whole family, children included. Why do you think these “family mass murders” happen?

They usually involve an enormous anguish. Something has gone seriously wrong, and it seems there’s no way forward, no solution to the problems. And in that dark state of mind, somebody makes the evaluation that it would be best for everyone if all the members of the family perished together.

As horrible as it sounds, family killings are often done out of a sense of love. The person who carries out the killing doesn’t want his/her family to go on suffering. We cops often use the term “extended suicide” about cases like these.

41) Have you ever investigated a case where the evidence pointed in one direction and your intuition pointed somewhere else, and it finally turned out that your intuition was correct?

I’ve had these types of cases. Let’s say we have a potential culprit in custody, and I interrogate this person. Upon talking to the person, I might be overcome with a sense that, despite the evidence, this person is not our guy. And later it turns out I was right.

42) Are you still occasionally shocked by death and blood, these kinds of things?

No. I never have been shocked by such things.

43) Is there any one particular case that has made you hate mankind?

*laughs* No.

44) The ease with which you’re able to handle the darker side of this job, do you think it’s innate, something you’re born with, or do you think it’s something that can be practiced and cultivated?

My opinion is that it’s innate. It’s something that comes from your very personality.

45) Does every detective have a “breaking point”?

I’ve never had a case that would have broken me, but frankly, too much bureaucracy can break any cop. But maybe one day I will be assigned to a case that breaks me! We’ll see.

46) If you were not a detective, what do you think you’d be doing for a living?

I have that background in civilian work, and I might be doing that job. But I’ve been doing this for so long, I don’t see switching jobs as a realistic scenario at this point. Maybe I’ll switch to a different department inside the police organization, but not to a totally different field of work.

47) Do you see this your retirement job?

Well, that’s one option, but… This job is getting more and more entangled in bureaucracy, which makes it harder and harder to do. This is due to changes inside the organization, changes in the law, new directives, all that. But retiring from this is one possibility.

48) Does humankind have any hope?

*laughs* There’s always hope. We’re not doing THAT bad.

49) Do you feel safe in your job? Have you ever had to fear for your safety in your free time because of what you do for a living?

So far, I feel safe.

-) Do professional criminals respect the police? In the sense that they don’t come threaten you if they see you at a pub, or something like that?

Well, if we talk about genuine professional criminals, there’s a certain respect there that goes both ways. You rarely have any such problems with them.

“Wannabe-gangsters” are a bigger problem, and much more likely to cause problems in a cop’s private life as well.

50) Why is the Finnish crime rate relatively low?

This is a question for a statistician; I can’t really say. From my grassroots perspective, we a shitload of work all the time. *laughs*

51) How do you keep the various cases on your table in order in your mind?

Thankfully, we don’t get all the cases in the department, just the ones that are delegated to us because of our expertise. I have various cases on my table, but not all of them keep me busy all the time. For instance, the inquests that I have on my responsibility sit there while I wait for coroner’s statements and other information; once I have that info, the inquests are simply archived. So they only keep me busy for a while, and then move on to await other information.

52) Does Finland have serial killers? I’m speaking of that classic type of serial killer who seeks out a victim, kills the victim, then goes into a “cooling off” period before striking again.

Yes, we do have them. And I believe we might have more of them on our radar if we could connect more cases through evidence.

53) What do you think about mediums and clairvoyants who say they work with the police in solving cases, finding missing people, etc.?

I’m open-minded, and wouldn’t categorically deny the possibility that something like this could possibly happen. However, I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on their claims. I don’t know of a single investigation where our unit would have employed a medium to help out.

Mostly, these mediums tell a person exactly what they want to hear, and this is of no use in a police investigation.

54) Have you yourself ever had a paranormal experience?

Let’s just say that I have received a greeting from beyond the grave.

55) Immigration to Finland has increased quite a bit in the recent years. From your perspective, have immigrants brought with them particular kinds of crime? Or have you seen an increase in immigrants in some area of crime?

I’m going to leave this question unanswered.

56) In terms of missing persons cases, are there certain factors that feature again and again in disappearances? Some types of similarities between the cases?

Unstable youths who have been placed in foster homes are a common group in disappearances. Sometimes we also have cases where someone simply does not want to be in contact with their families, and disappear because of this.

But regardless of age or gender or any other factor, all kinds of people disappear.

57) Do you spend any free time investigating “classic” crime cases?

I have no energy left for free-time homicide investigations. *laughs*

58) If you could travel in time and space and investigate any unsolved crime you choose, which case would you choose to investigate?

Probably the Jack the Ripper murders from Whitechapel in England.

-) what would you do differently than the original detectives?

There’s very little I could do, considering the rudimentary investigative methods of the late 1800s. There was no DNA, no CCTV cameras. All those detectives had were interrogations and witnesses. They basically would have had to catch him red-handed.

And finally, my regular questions:

59) Your top 3 movies?

There are so many of them, as movies are a hobby of mine. But I would say:

  1. Taxi Driver (1976)
  2. Scarface (1983)
  3. Casino (1995)

60) Your top 3 songs?

  1. Metallica – Fade to Black
  2. Opeth – Burden
  3. Alice Cooper – He’s Back

61) Your top 3 books?

Hard one. I’ve been reading since I was ten.

  1. Stephen King – The Dead Zone
  2. Bernard Cornwell – The Last Kingdom
  3. Conn Iggulden – Wolf of the Plains

62) What model phone do you use?

iPhone 7