In television and books, the search for the killer often provides the drama. But in his summer internship, Connor Downs ’20 is learning that a lot of analysis and interpretation goes into deciding if there has been a homicide at all.
Downs is interning this summer with the Massachusetts State Police Homicide Investigations unit, supported by a funded internship grant from Bowdoin.
Since the end of May, the Massachusetts Homicide Investigations unit—a team made up of thirteen detectives, one lieutenant, and one sergeant—have investigated seventy-five unattended deaths. Downs has assisted on thirty-five of them.
While that number might seem high to some, Downs notes that it’s actually down from previous years. “They had been expecting more homicides based on what has happened in past years,” he explained.
The state homicide team, which is based in the city of New Bedford, is obligated to investigate every unexpected death that occurs in Bristol County, including traffic accidents, suicides, and drug overdoses. “What my department does is rule out the possibility of homicide with any unattended death,” Downs said. Of the thirty-five cases he’s participated in, two are active murder cases. One required a police dog to sniff out the discarded murder weapon in a patch of woods.
Downs’ internship is funded by a grant from Bowdoin’s Peter Buck Internship Fund. This year, seventy-eight Bowdoin students were awarded these competitive grants, which enable them to pursue unpaid summer internships or projects. Had it not been for his grant, Downs, who lives in Foxboro, Mass., said, “I would have gone back to waiting tables at the Olive Garden.”
Instead, he’s shadowing one of the homicide unit detectives, and being called to scenes of possible crimes — which often entails driving to sites in the middle of the night. He’s also spent time with four different police bureaus: the forensic, ballistic, marine, and mounted units. “I’ve gotten a good understanding of how the state police functions as a whole, as well as all the experience I’ve gotten on crime scenes,” Downs said.
On top of that, he’s sharpening his observational and analytical skills. Downs describes the deliberate nature of the state police’s examination, focusing on possible explanations for each detail in the evidence one by one before moving on to the next. One of the detectives showing him the ropes is an expert in criminal psychology. “He’s been giving me tips about looking for emotion at the crime scene,” such as signs the suspect tried to de-personalize the victim, Downs said.
While the stories he brings home at night sometimes alarm his mother, Downs said he’s been having a “great, hands-on” summer. Though, he does concede it took him a few days to get used to the job. “The first few scenes I went to shook me up, but the more you go to the better adjusted you become,” he said.
Most helpfully, the experience has cemented his desire to pursue a career solving crimes, he said, although he’s not sure yet if he wants to be a homicide detective, a district attorney, or perhaps an F.B.I. agent. A history and psychology major, Downs said he’ll apply for another funded internship to work for the F.B.I. or a D.A.’s office next summer.