DAs Tell Seminar Cooperation Can Increase Arson Convictions
Many words were spoken at a Columbus, Ohio, seminar on combatting arson, which was sponsored by the National Fire Academy, but the ones that offered the hope of immediate implementation were offered by two prosecutors from New York City.
The two assistant district attorneys, F. Giles Giovinazzi of Bronx County and Robert C. McGann of Queens County, both urged arson investigators to confer with their prosecutors early in their investigations. The two assistant district attorneys also stressed the need for cooperation among all agencies involved in an arson investigation.
At the seminar conducted at the Battelle Columbus Laboratories February 23 and 24, Giovinazzi stated that the breakdown in the steps from investigation to successful prosecution of arson cases comes when law enforcement officials don’t confer with their prosecutors early enough to get advice on making arrests and developing sufficient evidence. The prosecutor stated that sometimes the evidence package presented by an arson investigator is inadequate and it sometimes is too late to obtain additional evidence.
McGann commented that “arson requires an expertise most other crimes simply don’t require” and investigators
must make certain that the evidence is adequate for prosecution of the case. He urged that the Fire Academy take steps to alert prosecutors to the need to develop cooperation by fire service and police arson investigators. McGann pointed out that a prosecutor can tell these investigators to “get together if you want me” to prosecute a case.
Giovinazzi agreed with this and urged the Fire Academy to develop a model arson prosecution program for law enforcement officials.
“When the average prosecutor gets an arson case, he doesn’t know what to do with it,” Giovinazzi asserted, explaining that the average prosecutor is unaware of the best way to present arson evidence. Part of the problem, he continued,. is that there is “no specialized handling of arson in the prosecutor’s office.”
Prosecution in itself is a weapon that can be used against arson, McGann said, because just the risk of being prosecuted—even without an eventual conviction— can be a deterrent to would-bearsonists. He pointed out that businessmen who may consider arson as a way out of the difficulties will think of what may happen to their families if they are indicted and tried—even if they are not convicted.
Must first detect arson
In citing the importance of a fire investigation, McGann pointed out that a felony murder charge can result from the death of a fire fighter at an arson fire but the fire investigator must first determine whether the fire was caused by arson before the police have a homicide case to investigate. Because of such situations, McGann advised against assigning the responsibility for investigating to a specific agency—fire or police.
The seminar participants were cautioned by Alcus Greer, fire marshal of the Houston Fire Department, that they were going “far afield” if they tried to designate whether the fire or police department had the responsibility for investigating arson. He noted that there are some state and local laws that assign this responsibility in certain states and municipalities.
Where there is no specified agency for arson investigation, said Dan J. Carpenter, Mecklenburg County, N.C., fire administrator and chief fire marshal, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration should establish a procedure for determining which agency makes arson investigations. Carpenter explained that he was not interested in areas where investigations are being made successfully, but in areas where there is a lack of fire and police cooperation.
Coordinated effort needed
Police Chief Robert L. Hanson of Seattle commented that arson investigation responsibility can’t be concentrated in any one agency but has to be a coordinated effort and added, “if not a cooperative effort, it has to be a coordinated effort.”
Dan H. Mershon, director of the Metropolitan Chicago Loss Bureau, then observed that if one investigating agency overcomes or overpowers the other, there will be no cooperation.
The development of a “functional model” to define what a prosecutor needs to prosecute an arson case successfully was proposed by Anthony R. Granito, who then was with the National Fire Protection Association but who has since become associate director of the National Fire Academy. He added that once step-by-step investigation procedure has been established, then each community could decide which agency should have the responsibility for obtaining evidence.
The insurance industry, said Richard Aarberg, a vice president of State Farm Insurance Companies, should have a role as part of the arson investigation team. He zeroed in on a sore point that has come up at other arson seminars when he declared that an insurance company “certainly should not pay a loss in the middle of the investigation.” He saw a need for insurance companies to take a tougher stand in handling loss claims for suspicious fires and he expressed the opinion that the insurance industry was coming around to his viewpoint.
Fire Chief Frank R. Hanson of Seattle declared that he would like to see the insurance industry advance beyond cooperation and provide some funding for the battle to reduce the incidence of arson.
His suggestion drew agreement from Roger M. Freeman, Jr., president of the Allendale Mutual Insurance Company and seminar moderator. He said that insurance companies are taking action in the arson battle and if they ever were ready to provide funds, “now is the time.” However, Freeman added, the insurance firms need guidance on how to make the best use of their funds. He suggested that at least some of the money be spent for training arson investigators.
Immediate action by the National Fire Academy to develop and institute a training course for arson investigators was urged by Granito. The course should cover detection and enforcement as well as investigation, he added. David M. McCormack, National Academy superintendent, remarked that “many other groups have responsibility in this area” and it should be a cooperative enterprise. Fire Chief Hanson observed that prosecutors should have a role in any training program for fire investigators.
From the group discussion of training, Captain William R. Rucinski, commanding officer of the Michigan State Police Fire Marshal Division and vice moderator of the seminar, saw agreement among the seminar participants on the need for minimum standards and certification for all levels of fire investigators. He urged input into the NFPA standard for investigators.
The work of the arson seminar participants will become formalized in a report to be developed by the National Fire Academy.