Ex-NYPD detectives talk murder

“NYPD Blue” and “Homicide” may offer terrific drama and entertainment, but suspenseful plots and talented actors on television can never live up to the real-life experience.

Last Wednesday evening, retired NYPD detectives Austin Francis Muldoon III and John Bourges spoke to students about “Investigating Murder.” The lecture took place in Stetson Faculty Lounge and was open to everyone, with an emphasis on enhancing the curriculum of Class of 1956 Professor of Sociology and Social Thought Robert Jackall’s Sociology 215 class, “Crime in the Streets.”

“Since 1993, I have brought in over 40 police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges,” Jackall said. “[Bourges and Muldoon] are among the best at addressing student audiences.”

According to Jackall, the detectives have “a vast range of experience in investigating the most difficult kinds of murders that occur in New York City.”

Bourges began the lecture by speaking about the nature of detective work. He addressed the frequency of homicides in that district: “Sometimes you’d have a few murders all in one day, and then only one murder over the next week.”

Bourges said that on some days he would receive calls to investigate murders in the afternoon, while still in the midst of covering one in the morning.

He explained that an investigation is carried out by several groups of people, including those who investigate the crime scene, gather evidence, and find and question witnesses. “Why we get paid the money is to find out the truth,” he said.

In Bourges’ opinion, the best detectives are the ones who go beyond simply locating a witness and asking if he or she saw the crime. Bourges described how a skilled detective might grill an individual with inquiries that might lead to finding minute details about the case, or even point to another witness or suspect.

Before becoming detectives, both men worked in the narcotics division, where the risky nature of the job didn’t impress them. “Narcotics got really old, really fast,” said Bourges, referring to one occasion where he was threatened with a gun and ultimately recovered only half an ounce of cocaine.

Muldoon focused on one of the key elements of detective work: interrogation. He said that it is essential to make the interrogated person feel comfortable and to strive not to be judgmental. “A lot of the time, it’s how you approach these people,” Bourges said.

Muldoon also stressed the importance of gathering details and looking for discrepancies.

In many cases, detectives are forced to work with very little information. Sometimes, a random question produces an unexpected breach in the case. “It’s good to be good, but it’s better to be lucky,” Muldoon said.

The detectives also passed around photographs of homicide scenes and described the stories behind each. The audience studied a document of the Miranda rights, while Muldoon spoke about the necessity of reading a witness his or her rights.

“The first thing you have to think about is whether the interrogation is custodial or non-custodial,” Muldoon said. If the interrogation is custodial, the detective must read the person the Miranda rights. If it is non-custodial, he may proceed with questioning until confession, or until another lead opens up in the case.

Bourges and Muldoon invited questions at any time during the lecture. The question of the influence of DNA testing was raised. Although DNA testing is becoming increasingly popular, the detectives reminded the audience that such tests constitute a small part of any homicide case.

“DNA is just DNA,” Muldoon said. “You still have to do the investigation.”

They also commented on the depiction of homicide detectives on popular police shows. The two had actually gotten the chance to collaborate with the writers of “NYPD Blue.” In Muldoon’s opinion, the portrayals in “Law and Order” were the most accurate. While the lives of homicide detectives on TV often appear miserable, Muldoon said that in reality, he worked in “a pretty enjoyable environment.”

“Television is television. Television is fiction,” Bourges said. “It’s somebody’s creation of how the police department’s supposed to be.”

Both men thoroughly enjoyed their time as detectives: “I had some really great people on my team. It was a very pleasant experience,” Muldoon said.

Unlike Muldoon, who is a third generation cop, Bourges entered the profession without the influence of family. “I believe in fate, and fate led me to join the NYPD,” he said.

To anyone interested in pursuing a similar career path, Muldoon said, “Keep an open mind, and enjoy yourself.” In dealing with the gruesome nature of homicide work, he said he realized many things: “I learned to appreciate my own life more so.”