Section 4.4: Investigations and Specialized Units

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Hollywood has created many famous “investigators” that have become archetypes in popular culture. However, it is essential to note that these characters are not always accurate depictions of real-life criminal investigators. One of the most unrealistic myths portrayed in movies and TV shows is the “super sleuth,” who can always solve the case and catch the culprit. In reality, police clear only about 20% of index crimes.

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Another myth is that detectives lead a life full of adventure and danger. This idea is also far from the truth, as detectives often have to do a great deal of tedious paperwork. Although there are times when investigators may face some danger, most of their work involves conducting interviews, analyzing evidence, and filling out reports.

It is important to understand that Hollywood’s portrayal of investigators is not always accurate. Real-life criminal investigations are much more complex and take much time and effort. Detectives have to use a combination of skills, including critical thinking, analysis, and attention to detail, to solve cases.

What Investigators Do

Police officers responding to service calls often play a crucial role in solving crimes (Roberg, 1986). If they cannot make an arrest during their initial investigation, the case is then handed over to a criminal investigator. The investigator’s primary responsibility is gathering information, which requires diverse skills and knowledge (Greene & Mastrofski, 1988). Also, a good investigator must have the knowledge and skill to properly conduct a crime scene investigation.

However, studies have shown that the traditional role of investigators may not be as critical to solving crimes as previously thought. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) suggests that many serious crimes cannot be solved through investigation alone, as there may not be more evidence (NIJ, n.d.). Investigators tend to have low clearance rates overall.   The clearance rate is the percentage of reported crimes “cleared” by police through arrest, suspect identification, or prosecution decline. 

Research has found that patrol officers often play a more significant role in solving crimes than investigators. Many cases are cleared with arrests made at the scene rather than through lengthy investigations (Roberg, 1986).

As a result, there have been discussions about improving investigations and making detectives a more proactive part of the police department (Greene & Mastrofski, 1988). In an era of community policing, there is a greater emphasis on finding ways to improve the effectiveness of investigators and their ability to work closely with patrol officers to solve crimes (NIJ, n.d.).

The Patrol Function 

In criminal investigations, detectives usually handle follow-up investigations, but the first responder is often a uniformed patrol officer. The investigation starts when dispatchers receive a call, usually through a 911 system. In small departments, the patrol officer who does the initial investigation may continue until it is complete.

Officer safety is the top priority at a crime scene. Although public safety is essential, officers must prioritize their own safety first. This ensures they can investigate the crime and protect the public. For example, in active shooter situations, officers must eliminate the threat before attending to the medical needs of victims. Once the scene is secure, the first responder will assess what happened and identify any potential witnesses. It is essential that only necessary personnel (law enforcement or civilians) enter the scene to preserve evidence.

Once the scene is secure, the first responder will determine if further investigation is necessary. This could mean calling in a technician or investigator or conducting further investigations. Some crimes may fall under the jurisdiction of another agency, such as the state police or FBI. The decision to transfer the case will usually be made at the administrative level. However, patrol officers may need to make this decision in cases where public safety demands immediate action, such as acts of terrorism or hazardous material spills.

Keeping accurate records is crucial in all investigations. Records take the form of departmental forms, reports, notes, sketches, and photographs. Patrol officers must document the crime scene accurately, as proper documentation can help a follow-up investigation by a detective.

Specialized Units

The size of a city’s population is closely linked to the number of specialized units within its police department. Generally, larger cities tend to have more specialized units than smaller ones. Traffic and drug enforcement units are the most common specialized units in American police departments. The operation of such units depends on the departmental policy, but national priorities can also play a role because the national government often funds law enforcement initiatives through grants.

The most common specialized unit within American police departments is the traffic division.  Traffic units are specialized divisions within police departments that focus on enforcing traffic laws and ensuring public safety on roadways. These units may be responsible for various duties, including investigating traffic accidents, enforcing speed limits, and conducting sobriety checkpoints to prevent drunk driving. 

Traffic units may also be responsible for issuing citations and conducting inspections of commercial vehicles to ensure compliance with safety regulations. In some cases, traffic units may also provide education and outreach to the public on safe driving practices and the dangers of impaired driving. Due to the importance of road safety, traffic units are often well-staffed and equipped with specialized vehicles and equipment to carry out their duties effectively.

In more extensive police departments, investigative duties are typically divided between crimes against persons and crimes against property. Each category may require investigators with specific knowledge or skills. While most criminal investigators are generalists with a broad range of skills to handle various criminal cases, some agencies create specialized investigative units to handle specific types of crimes. These specialized units can be dedicated to domestic violence, vice, organized crime, or sex crimes, among others.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence against intimate partners has been a social issue for a long time, but it was often considered a “family matter” and ignored by the criminal justice system (Buzawa & Buzawa, 2003). Thankfully, public awareness and police response have improved, but the problem persists, and the level of violence tends to increase over time. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (2022), on average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. Approximately one in four women and one in nine men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact sexual violence, or intimate partner stalking in their lifetime.

In about 44% of the female homicides in the United States where the relationship between the victim and the offender is known, the victim was killed by a current or former intimate partner (Violence Policy Center, 2021). Domestic violence includes various acts, and social and behavioral scientists define it much more broadly than criminal codes (Buzawa & Buzawa, 2003).

To address this persistent problem, many police departments have established specialized units. These departments recognize that typical police methods, such as arrest, do not work well in domestic violence cases. Officers need specialized training to understand the dynamics of domestic violence, and they require outside help to assist victims. 

Investigation and arrest alone are inefficient at solving the problem of domestic violence. In progressive departments, investigators work alongside social workers to provide equal attention to victim assistance and criminal investigation. This problem-oriented approach helps victims escape abusive relationships and dramatically reduces the number of calls for service related to the same abusive relationship (Klein, 2019).

Vice

The term vice refers to criminal activities that are often considered victimless crimes. These crimes include gambling, prostitution, and drug use. For example, in the case of prostitution, there are no obvious victims, and both parties engage in the activity consensually. However, these activities are still illegal in most places, and not all police departments have vice units to address them. Instead, some departments have specialized drug units to deal with drug-related crimes.

The laws that make these activities illegal have been increasingly criticized by many who believe they are outdated and unnecessary. As a result, enforcing these laws has become increasingly unpopular in some areas. This can make it difficult for police officers to do their jobs effectively.

The movement toward the legalization of marijuana is a commonly discussed example of this phenomenon. While marijuana use and possession are still illegal under federal law, several states have legalized it for medicinal and recreational purposes. This means that the likelihood of getting arrested for marijuana possession can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the specific laws in place.

Vice units are specialized units within modern police departments that are responsible for investigating and addressing criminal activities that are commonly referred to as victimless crimes. These crimes include prostitution, gambling, and drug use. Vice units typically operate in larger police departments and are staffed by officers with specialized training in these investigations.

The primary function of vice units is enforcing laws related to these types of activities. This can involve conducting undercover operations to gather evidence of criminal activity, coordinating with other law enforcement agencies to conduct large-scale investigations, and working with community organizations to educate the public about the dangers of these activities.

In addition to their law enforcement role, vice units also play an essential role in preventing the spread of diseases, such as sexually transmitted infections, that can result from engaging in these activities. They also help to protect vulnerable individuals who may be forced into prostitution or drug use against their will.

Overall, the function of vice units is to uphold the law and promote public safety by addressing criminal activities that can negatively impact individuals and communities. While controversial at times, these units play an important role in maintaining law and order in modern society.

Organized Crime

Organized crime refers to a group of people who work together to commit criminal acts. This definition includes the mafia but is not limited to it. Organized crime can involve illegal goods and services, like gambling and drugs, and may also include predatory crimes like theft, burglary, and murder. These criminal organizations can be large and complex, leading to complex investigations. Often, criminal organizations operate across state and local borders, making jurisdiction challenging to determine.

State and local agencies are often involved in these investigations because they have more resources and broader jurisdiction. However, these investigations often require unique expertise in financial crimes, which is beyond the capabilities of local police. Confidential informants are also common, but this adds another layer of legal complexity to these cases.

Organized crime units are specialized units within modern law enforcement that investigate criminal organizations involved in illegal activities such as drug trafficking, money laundering, extortion, and human trafficking. These units work to disrupt and dismantle the criminal enterprises and networks that engage in organized crime.

Organized crime units often operate at the local, state, and federal levels and may collaborate with other agencies and departments to share information and resources. These units may have access to specialized investigative techniques, such as wiretapping and electronic surveillance, and may use informants to gather information.

Investigating organized crime requires extensive knowledge of criminal law and specialized investigative skills, including the ability to analyze financial records, identify patterns of criminal activity, and build cases against criminal organizations. Organized crime units often employ highly trained investigators, financial analysts, and prosecutors to investigate and prosecute these cases.

Internal Affairs 

Throughout the history of policing in the United States, there has been a controversial question of who polices the police. The public expects law enforcement agencies to maintain the highest standards of professionalism and accountability, but sometimes police officers fail to meet these standards. This can result in misconduct, such as excessive force, corruption, or other violations of the law and police codes of conduct.

In response to these concerns, many police departments began establishing internal affairs units in the late 1950s to investigate allegations of police misconduct. These units are responsible for investigating incidents of suspected misconduct, whether brought forward by civilians or discovered through internal reports or observations. The primary role of internal affairs units is to ensure that police officers act according to the law and professional standards and maintain public trust in law enforcement agencies.

Internal affairs units are usually separate from the usual police command structure and answer directly to the department’s chief. They are often staffed by experienced investigators with no connection to the case being investigated. These investigators must conduct a thorough, impartial, and objective investigation to determine whether or not misconduct has occurred. They have the power to interview witnesses, collect evidence, and issue subpoenas.

While using internal affairs units has become widespread in modern policing, it remains controversial. Some critics argue that internal affairs units are insufficiently independent and are ineffective in holding police officers accountable for their actions. However, many police departments see internal affairs as essential for ensuring accountability and maintaining public trust in law enforcement.

Juveniles and the Police

Juvenile offenders are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime, indicating that dealing with juvenile crime represents a significant proportion of police work (Farrington et al., 2016). The impact of juveniles on police work is enhanced due to the existence of status offenses, which are acts prohibited for minors but would not be considered criminal if committed by adults. The police must deal with common status offenses such as truancy, running away from home, and juvenile curfew violations. Furthermore, police are frequently called upon to deal with juveniles in matters that are not criminal, such as missing persons, child abuse, and child neglect.

Many large, urban police departments have established specialized juvenile units due to the wide range of problems involving juveniles (Finn, 2017). Most police encounters with juveniles involve order maintenance, such as asking loiterers to move along and crowd control at large events (NIJ, 2018). Research shows that juveniles are less likely than adults to respect the police and the law, and strict rule enforcement causes juvenile resentment (NIJ, 2018).

Community policing is a promising approach to bridging the gap between juveniles and the police. The philosophy of community policing emphasizes collaboration between communities and the police to solve community problems. To be successful, these problem-solving efforts require the participation and input of all community members, including juveniles (Borum & Cornell, 2015).

Two common community policing programs targeting juveniles are the Drug Awareness Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program and the emergence of School Resource Officers (SROs) in schools throughout the United States (NIJ, 2018). 

The D.A.R.E. program was unique in its collaborative approach between educational institutions and police departments (NIJ, 2018). However, empirical research has shown that the program has little long-term impact on later drug use (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018).

In practice, many SROs are relegated to the function of security guards rather than community collaborators that build relationships and solve problems (NIJ, 2018). However, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) recognizes the complex role of SROs as law enforcement officers, counselors, teachers, and liaisons between police, schools, and other community elements.

The COPS provided $68 million awarded to hire and train 599 SROs in 289 communities throughout the United States, signaling a recognition that training beyond that traditionally offered in police academies is required (NIJ, 2018).

Summary

The Section discusses the portrayal of criminal investigators in popular culture and the reality of their work. It highlights the unrealistic myth of the “super sleuth” who always solves cases and catches the culprit and the misconception that detectives lead an adventurous life full of danger. Instead, investigators typically conduct interviews, analyze evidence, and fill out reports, often involving tedious paperwork. Hollywood’s portrayal of investigators is only sometimes accurate, and real-life investigations are much more complex, requiring critical thinking, analysis, and attention to detail.

The Section then explains the role of police officers in criminal investigations, with patrol officers playing a crucial role in solving crimes. They often do the initial investigation, and if they cannot make an arrest, the case is handed over to a criminal investigator. However, studies have shown that the traditional role of investigators may not be as critical to solving crimes as previously thought. The chapter explores the importance of community policing and the need to improve the effectiveness of investigators.

We then discussed specialized units in modern police departments, including traffic and drug enforcement units, crimes against persons and crimes against property, domestic violence, vice, organized crime, and internal affairs. The domestic violence unit recognizes that typical police methods, such as arrest, do not work well in domestic violence cases.  Officers need specialized training to understand the dynamics of domestic violence and require outside help to assist victims. 

Vice units investigate and address criminal activities commonly called victimless crimes, such as prostitution, gambling, and drug use. Organized crime units investigate criminal organizations involved in illegal activities such as drug trafficking, money laundering, extortion, and human trafficking. Internal affairs units investigate allegations of police misconduct and ensure that police officers act according to the law and professional standards.

Juvenile offenders are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime, making dealing with juvenile crime a significant proportion of police work. Police often deal with common status offenses such as truancy, running away from home, and juvenile curfew violations. Additionally, they may deal with juveniles in matters that are not criminal, such as missing persons, child abuse, and child neglect. Many large, urban police departments have established specialized juvenile units due to the many problems involving juveniles. 

Community policing is a promising approach to bridging the gap between juveniles and the police. Most police encounters with juveniles involve order maintenance, and research shows that juveniles are less likely than adults to respect the police and the law. Two common community policing programs targeting juveniles are the Drug Awareness Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program and the emergence of School Resource Officers (SROs) in schools throughout the United States.

The D.A.R.E. program was unique in its collaborative approach between educational institutions and police departments. At the same time, the role of SROs is complex and involves training beyond that traditionally offered in police academies.

Key Terms

Active Shooter, Child Abuse, Child Neglect, Clearance Rate, Confidential Informant, Crime Scene Investigation (CSI), Domestic Violence, Drug Awareness Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), Drug Enforcement Unit, Informant, Internal Affairs, Juvenile Curfew, Mafia, Scene Integrity, School Resource Officer (SRO), Specialized Units, Traffic Unit, Vice

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Last Updated:  07/13/2023

References

  • Borum, R., & Cornell, D. (2015). A multi-dimensional and integrative approach to reducing school violence and aggression. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 21(3), 214–223. 
  • Buzawa, E. S., & Buzawa, C. G. (2003). Domestic violence: The criminal justice response. Sage Publications.
  • Farrington, D. P., Coid, J. W., Harnett, L., Jolliffe, D., Soteriou, N., Turner, R. E., & West, D. J. (2016). Criminal careers up to age 50 and life success up to age 48: New findings from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development. London: Ministry of Justice.
  • Finn, P. (2017). Juvenile justice: Theoretical framework and social context. SAGE Publications.
  • Greene, J., & Mastrofski, S. (1988). Community policing in America: Changing the nature, structure, and function of the police. Justice Quarterly, 5(1), 5-26.
  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. (2022). Domestic violence national statistics
  • National Criminal Justice Reference Service. (2019). Juvenile justice system structure and process.  
  • National Institute of Justice. (n.d.). Crime solutions. U.S. Department of Justice. 
  • Violence Policy Center. (2021). When men murder women: An analysis of 2020 homicide data

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