College alumnus goes from chemist to detective

Chelsea Holtman, Staff Writer

Terry McGinn, a Syracuse Police detective and Le Moyne College graduate, is not your typical police officer or Le Moyne alumnus. McGinn took a roundabout and somewhat unconventional path to a career in law enforcement… He started out as a chemist.

His father, Dr. Clifford McGinn, was one of the founding professors at Le Moyne College and taught chemistry here for 45 years, from 1948 to 1993. His mother, Rosemary, was a chemistry major and member of Le Moyne’s first graduating class in 1951.

Not only are McGinn and both of his parents Le Moyne alumni, but seven of his 11 siblings are also Le Moyne College grads.

When McGinn enrolled at Le Moyne College in 1983, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life.  His father encouraged him to study chemistry, which he did and enjoyed. After getting his chemistry degree from Le Moyne in 1987, he headed to grad school at the University of Buffalo, but left after a year and a half to help take care of his father, who had suffered a series of strokes.

Upon returning to Syracuse, McGinn found a job as a forensic scientist for the Syracuse Police Department Crime Laboratory, where a lot of his time was spent analyzing narcotics. He worked closely with the officers and became interested in the career himself. So, in 1989, soon after joining the Crime Lab, McGinn applied to be a police officer.

He started out like every other new cop — as a patrol officer. By choice, he worked the midnight shift for several years, where he was a Crime Scene Specialist, collecting and analyzing evidence. McGinn was the primary officer sent to major crime and accident scenes, where he took photographs, made measurements, gathered evidence and dusted for fingerprints.

Today, McGinn is the most senior detective in the Crime Scene Unit and has worked on more than 300 homicide investigations within the city of Syracuse.

Day and night, in all kinds of weather, McGinn processes crime scenes, where he photographs the scene, takes precise measurements and searches for, collects and documents evidence — everything from blood spatter and shell casings, to an entire automobile. Processing crime scenes is methodical and meticulous work, wherein a single “uncomplicated” homicide can take days to process properly.

And crime takes no vacations. “I’ve missed out on a lot of holidays,” said McGinn, who has six children. For the sake of his family, he said, “There are two shifts I won’t work: Halloween night and Christmas Day.”

Evidence collection and analysis is only part of the job. It is the accurate interpretation of the evidence and expert court testimony that will actually put the bad guys in jail.

“Going to court is like the big final exam,” said McGinn. It is often his ability to effectively explain some pretty complex scientific principles to a jury that determines the success or failure of a prosecution. “Shows like ‘CSI’ have generally hurt real forensics,” McGinn said. “Nothing works out 100 percent perfectly in a real homicide investigation, like it does on television. Plus it’s a lot more work.”

McGinn feels his education at Le Moyne has helped him every step of the way, both in his private and professional life.

“To be successful, you need to be able to read and write and think — and to give something back,” he said. “Le Moyne gave me the ability to do that well.”

As far as his career as a Syracuse cop, McGinn has no regrets.

“Law enforcement has been a great career for me,” he said. “I come into work every day thinking ‘I’m gonna learn something today’ — and I do.  On the day I don’t, I’ll need to retire.”