If there is one thing Detective Jill Salyer has learned on her seven years with the Charlottesville Police Department it is that things sure look at lot easier on television. A longtime fan of the CSI franchise on CBS, which she partly credits with her interest in police work, Salyer now chuckles at the idea that the show inevitably wraps up complex cases over the course of one hour.
Despite the breaks with reality, Salyer said the show appealed to her eye for detail. “I really like being out processing crime scenes. I am very detail oriented and I love the fact that you might collect that one piece of evidence that will put a suspect at a crime scene. Evidence like that is very hard to fight.” Another not surprising difference between Hollywood and reality when it comes to police work, Salyer said, is that her work is not quite as pretty as you see on your flat screens. “We’re out there throwing powder everywhere – and I mean everywhere. And sometimes it can take as long as a month for the results to come back from the lab.”
There is nothing like the feeling when your hard work, and a few lucky breaks pays off, she said. She recalls a recent arrest that came about when she and her colleagues painstakingly pulled fingerprints off a stolen vehicle. “When we got the results from the lab, we were able to put the suspect there, and now we just had to reach out and interview him and find out what happened.”
Other times, her answer can come from a person taking a single step. “There was a recent case where pretty much the only piece of evidence we were able to pull from a crime scene was a single footwear impression,” Salyer said. “That is something that seems so simple that it might be easy to overlook.” In this case, that impression gave her and her colleagues what they needed to get a search warrant that helped them match the shoe with a pair owned by the suspect.”
Given the nature of her work, there is really no such thing as a regular day at the office for Salyer and her fellow detectives. Even when doing mundane paperwork, she has her ear to the scanner and could be headed to a scene at any moment – and those moments could come in any one of a day’s 24 hours. “You can get called out a 2:00 AM, and we all show up ready to work hard. There might be 80 items of evidence that we need to break down into separate scenes, and a lot of that comes down to the camaraderie and communication we have as a unit.
That communication extends to the people Salyer serves, especially since her interactions with them come on what will be among the worst days of their lives. “I deal with a lot of deaths, whether it is an elderly person who has passed away or a suspicious one. So my work includes helping family members with funeral services, then following up with them to talk about what we are finding. I am thankful to have had a lot of positive feedback from these people, which I find very satisfying.”
While it is impossible to ignore the friction that exists between the community and law enforcement in a post August 12, 2017 Charlottesville era and in the current times of police/civilian tensions across the country. “For me, it comes down to the fact that we all chose this job for one reason, and that is to protect and serve and help the community, and that is what we are trying to do.”