History of Criminal Investigation Research Paper

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During the course of history, police organizations have responded to a variety of external forces that have caused changes in how organizations perform the investigative function and the methods used to investigate criminal occurrences. This research paper describes the evolution of the criminal investigation function in the United States. The predecessors of modern detectives (informers and parliamentary reward, thief-takers, thief-makers) are discussed, the tactics and technologies of early investigations in the USA are examined, the development and importance of private detectives and state and federal law enforcement agencies are discussed, and changes in the investigative function through the political, reform, and community problem-solving eras of policing are chronicled.

The purpose of this research paper is to provide an overview of the history of the criminal investigation function in American law enforcement. An understanding of history, the history of criminal investigations in particular, is important for at least three reasons. First, history provides a context in which to place modern criminal investigation and thus allows for an appreciation of how much or how little things have changed over time. Second, as the adage goes, those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. To move forward, we must understand from where we have come. Accordingly, an understanding of history may provide insight into previous attempts and new methods of solving persistent problems. Third, if history is cyclical, if it repeats itself, then we may be able to predict the future by knowing the past (see Brandl 2003). It is with these understandings that attention is turned to the history of criminal investigations.

The Evolution Of The Investigative Task: English Developments

American policing and criminal investigation has its roots in English policing systems. As English society became more complex, and as traditional mechanisms (e.g., family, community) for controlling individuals’ behaviors began to lose their effectiveness over time, there was a need for an increasingly sophisticated system of social control. Policing was first an individual responsibility, then a responsibility of the group. With the Frankpledge Model of 1100 AD, all males older than the age of 12 years were designated as responsible for the protection of the group. Then, the Parish Constable system of the 1200s required a constable to organize and supervise watchmen, who would protect members of the town or village. Variations of the watchmen arrangement lasted until formal police departments were created in the early 1800s. It was only then that the modern detective was born.

Informers And Parliamentary Reward

A system of parliamentary reward operated during the 1700s and early 1800s in England. With this system, a reward was offered by the government to anyone who brought criminals to justice or provided information that led to the apprehension of criminals; the more serious the crime, the larger the reward. Although this system may sound like a historical equivalent of a modern-day tip line, there were major differences, one of which was the legal context in which parliamentary reward operated. During the time of parliamentary reward, more than 200 offenses were punishable by death. These offenses included theft, vagrancy, forgery, and even cutting down a tree without permission. The methods of execution included hanging, burning, and drawing and quartering. Many referred to the laws of the time as the bloody code. Most people, however, did not support the legal system nor did they believe the legal code was just. As a result, victims were often unlikely to pursue charges, witnesses often refused to testify, and juries were often not willing to convict. There was public sympathy for petty criminals who faced the possibility of execution (Klockars 1985). The problem was that by benefiting from providing information that would lead to the apprehension of petty criminals, informers were viewed with the same contempt as the legal system. Informers were not the answer; they were part of the problem.


In the early 1800s, thief-takers came to be. A thief-taker was a private citizen who was hired by a victim to recover stolen property or to apprehend the thief. The fee that the thief-taker charged was most often based on the value of the property recovered, and thief-taker only received compensation when the property was returned. The most desirable crimes to investigate, therefore, were ones that involved considerable property and ones for which the property was easily recovered. As such, thief-takers were not likely to spend much time on crimes for which the property was not likely to be recovered or on thefts that involved small amounts of property (Klockars 1985). In essence, the thief-takers most often worked on behalf of the rich, not the poor. In addition to this “selective attention” problem, there was an even more serious problem with thief-takers: Thief-takers often worked in cooperation with thieves. Some thief-takers even employed thieves (Klockars 1985). No question, the thief-taker arrangement was extraordinarily corrupt. The thief would steal from the victim, the victim would hire a thief-taker, the thief would sell the property to the thief-taker, and the thief-taker would then “sell” the property back to the victim. Everyone prospered at the victim’s expense.

Agent Provocateur And Thief-Makers

Along with thief-takers there were thief-makers. A thief-maker was an individual who tricked another person into committing a crime and then would turn that person in for the parliamentary reward. Thief-makers were often thief-takers who resorted to deception, seduction, trickery, and entrapment to apprehend criminals and receive the monetary rewards (Klockars 1985). These people essentially created criminals for their personal benefit. Not surprisingly, the methods used by these individuals were frequently viewed by citizens as outrageous and unacceptable.

London Metropolitan Police Department

With the 1800s came the Industrial Revolution and the dramatic and rapid increase of the population of cities, where people lived to be in close proximity to where they worked. Factory production was the basis of the new economy. With Industrial Revolution also came an increase in wealth among some people and poverty among others. “Urban” problems were born – sanitation and health issues, ethnic conflict, and crime. With all the changes came political pressure for the government to institute a more formal, more sophisticated, and more effective system of property protection. It was in this context that in 1829, the London Metropolitan Police Department was established.

Introduced early in the London Metropolitan Police Department was the concept of the “plain clothes police officer” – a detective to some, a police spy to others. In designing the job of detective, tremendous public resistance had to be overcome. The resistance was caused, in large part, because of the problems associated with earlier investigative arrangements – the problems associated with parliamentary reward, thief-takers, and thief-makers. To overcome these obstacles, and to allow detectives to be accepted by the public, certain features were incorporated into the design of the detective position (Klockars 1985).

First, to address the problems of parliamentary reward (when petty criminals faced unjust punishment because of the actions of informers), detectives were linked to the crime of murder. There was no public sympathy for murderers. The “architects” of the detective position capitalized on stories of murder and offered “detectives” as a way to combat this horrible crime. In addition, detectives were to play a dual role. Not only were they to help bring punishment to the worst of criminals, they were also supposed to save the innocent from the worst of punishments (Klockars 1985). One can see very clearly the direct association between detectives and murder in early detective fiction (e.g., Poe’s Murder in the Rue Morgue, Doyle’s A Study in Scarlett), and this likely helped sell the idea of the police detective to a skeptical public.

Second, to address the problems associated with the thief-taker arrangement, the most significant of which was that thief-takers only worked on behalf of the rich, detectives were to be given a salary (Klockars 1985). If detectives were given a salary, it was argued, they could work on behalf of the rich and the poor alike. Ideally, they could investigate crimes for which the property loss was small. In addition, given the profitability of working on crimes for a fee in a private arrangement, detectives were to be paid more than police officers.

Third, to address the problems associated with thief-makers, particularly the practice of thief-makers tricking people into committing crimes for the thief-maker’s benefit, detectives were made “reactive” and were assigned “cases” (Klockars 1985). Only after crimes occurred were detectives given the responsibility for investigating them. As a result, there was limited opportunity for thief-maker trickery. Detectives were to be evaluated in terms of their success in solving crimes. As a result, detectives were given more control over how they were to spend their working time and more discretion in determining how to investigate the cases they were assigned. These features – being responsible for the most serious of crimes, receiving a salary, and being reactive – eventually neutralized public resentment toward detectives and paved the way for their incorporation into police operations.

The Evolution Of The Investigative Task: American Developments

At the time of the ratification of the US Constitution, there were few federal laws and, accordingly, the policing function was almost exclusively a responsibility of local government. Policing was quite informal and consisted most often of volunteers assigned to the “watch” who would guard the village or town at night and later during the day. Local control of the police function was a desirable feature of American policing because, ideally, it allowed residents (and politicians) to influence more easily how policing was conducted in their community. The desire for local control also helped explain why the creators of the Constitution were resistant to the idea of an all-powerful national police force.

The First American Police Departments And Detectives

It was not until the mid-1800s that formal municipal police departments were created. These institutions were primarily located in the large and rapidly growing cities of the eastern United States (e.g., Boston, Philadelphia, New York). The Industrial Revolution created similar problems in America as in England. Of particular significance were the violent labor protests and the rioting that stemmed from clashes between immigrants and native-born Americans (Conti 1977). Municipal police detectives, those with primary responsibility for criminal identification, did not appear until later in the 1800s, and this development occurred largely in response to public concern about the increasing amount of crime. For example, in most years of the early to mid-1800s, there were no homicides recorded in Suffolk County (Boston), Massachusetts. Between 1860 and 1869, however, 70 homicides occurred. During the 1870s, 107 homicides were reported (Lane 1967). Detectives in America had much in common with those in England – they were responsible for the most serious of crimes (at least in image), they were to receive a salary, and they were primarily reactive.

The mid-1800s to the early 1900s has been characterized as the political era of policing (Kelling and Moore 1988). As the name suggests, policing at the time was all about politics; the police organization was an arm of the political machine. Politicians, particularly mayors and ward politicians, controlled virtually every aspect of policing including who got hired, what work officers performed, and who got fired. Besides political connections, there were few selection standards. There were tremendous opportunities for corruption. Police supervisors were few, and their influence over beat officers was minimal because there was no mechanism to provide for supervision. There was little ability for citizens to summon the police when needed because there was no means of communication. Officers patrolled on foot. The police made few arrests. According to Lane (1967), more than half of all arrests made at this time were for public drunkenness. This was an offense that beat cops could easily discover and no investigation was necessary. The police simply did not have the capability to respond to and investigate crimes. When an arrest was made, it was usually as a last resort. Making an arrest in the late 1800s usually involved a lot of work; officers would literally have to “run ‘em in” to the police station, or, when arresting a drunk, the officer would use a wheelbarrow and wheel him into the station (Haller 1976). “Curbside justice” with a hickory baton was often seen as an easier and more effective alternative by officers.

The political era of policing did not provide a large role for police detectives. Like the beat cops, detectives had limited capabilities in responding to investigating crimes. During the late 1800s, Boston’s politicians actually disbanded the police department’s detective bureau because their contributions were viewed as minimal (Lane 1967). Although important qualities for beat cops were size and fighting ability, the most important quality for detectives was a familiarity with criminals and their tactics. Many detectives were selected from the ranks of prison guards, and some were reformed criminals (Lane 1967). With this specialized knowledge, detectives received more pay than beat cops. Detectives also received extra compensation through “witness fees,” compensation for providing testimony in court. Detective work was often a clandestine activity. Detectives were sometimes considered to be members of a secret service (Kuykendall 1986). Detectives depended heavily on criminals for information to solve crimes. Detectives often worked in an “undercover” capacity to collect this information. Detectives never wore uniforms. Rather, they often wore disguises, even in court, to protect their identities. Sometimes detectives submitted their court testimony in writing so as not to reveal their identity (Kuykendall 1986).

It was at about this time that identification systems began to be developed and applied to criminal investigations. The first technology that was used for this was photography. By 1858, the New York City Police Department had on file photographs of known criminals. This collection of photographs was known as a rogues gallery (Dilworth 1977). Although photographs were commonly used in “wanted posters” and assisted in the apprehension of criminals, photographs were extremely limited in their usefulness because criminals could alter their appearance either deliberately or simply over time. Of course, to be useful, authorities first needed to have a photograph of the wanted person.

The most famous identification system of the time was the one developed by Alphonse Bertillon, a French criminologist who lived from 1853 to 1914. His system was known as Bertillonage, and it was considered a major improvement over the use of photographs. The premise of the system was that the bone structure of an adult did not change over the course of a lifetime. Bertillon identified 11 measurements (e.g., length and width of the head, length of the left foot, the length of the left middle and little fingers), and these measurements, it was suggested, could be used to identify people and to differentiate one person from another (Muller 1889). Bertillon estimated that the probability of two persons having the same 11 measurements was more than four million to one (Rhodes 1968). Instruments and instructions were developed by Bertillon to make the measurement process as precise as possible. In addition, an elaborate filing system was developed to organize the classification of individuals from whom measurements were taken. Because it was difficult for the police to take measurements of criminals on the street, Bertillon also developed a scaled-down version of his system. Although the technique enjoyed initial success in confirming the identity of suspected and known criminals and was used by police departments in many countries, by the early 1900s, the deficiencies of the system were obvious. It was simply too cumbersome, error prone, and limited in its applicability to be viable as an identification strategy.

Along with the use of these identification methods, detectives at the time also used various “investigative” tactics to deal with crime and criminals. One common strategy was the dragnet roundup of suspects. When informed of a crime, the police would find and arrest all suspicious persons and would keep these people in custody until it could be determined that they did not commit the crime. In essence, the police would often resort to “rounding up the usual suspects.” Another commonly used investigative tactic at the time was the “third degree,” which was also known as shellacking, messaging, breaking the news, or giving him the word (Lavine 1930). The origin of the expression “the third degree” is not clear, although some have speculated that the first degree was the arrest, the second degree was being transported to the police station, and the third degree was the interrogation (Kuykendall 1986; Skolnick and Fyfe 1993). Common methods of administering the third degree included beatings with a rubber hose (Haller 1976), placing a suspect in a sweat box for hours or days under constant questioning (Kuykendall 1986), drilling teeth, burning with lit cigars or cigarettes, and beating with blackjacks or batons (Lavine 1930). Many accounts suggest that the use of the third degree to obtain confessions was commonplace into the 1930s and beyond (Kuykendall 1986). However, it is important to note that in 1936, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Mississippi that prolonged beatings used to extract confessions were no longer a legally acceptable police practice. After the physical abuse of suspects abated, psychological coercion persisted, and in many situations, this coercion has been approved by the courts.

Sheriff, State Police, US Marshal, And The Bureau Of Investigation

While police departments were being developed in the major cities in the eastern portion of the country, other areas were most likely to be served by sheriffs and marshals. In the western portion of the country, US marshals were often the sole police power (Ball 1978). Marshals often employed deputies who also served as sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, or constables. With the appearance of automobile and in the face of corrupt and ineffective municipal police agencies and sheriffs’ departments, state police agencies were created to assist. In 1905, Pennsylvania created the first state police agency. It was designed to provide a police presence throughout the state, to assist the local police, and to provide police services in less populated, rural areas of the state (Conti 1977).

Also of significance at this time was the development of the Bureau of Investigation, to be later known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. President Theodore Roosevelt initially asked Congress to create a federal detective force in 1907. Congress opposed President Roosevelt’s idea on the official grounds of the long-cited public disdain for an all-powerful federal law enforcement agency. However, unofficially, it was significant that in 1906 two members of Congress had been prosecuted for fraud, the investigation of which was conducted by the Justice Department using agents from the Department of the Treasury. As a result, many members of Congress were concerned about giving the executive branch of government more investigative power (power perhaps to initiate more investigations of congressmen). Along with denying President Roosevelt’s request, Congress passed legislation that prohibited the Justice Department from using investigators from other agencies. Not to be stopped by Congress, in 1908 President Roosevelt created a Bureau of Investigation by executive order and directed Attorney General Charles Bonaparte to develop the agency within the Department of Justice. Twenty permanent and eighteen temporary investigators were hired (Murray 1955).

With the turmoil surrounding its creation, it is not surprising that during the first years of its operation (1910s), the Bureau of Investigation was entrenched in scandal. However, at the same time, it was slowly becoming accepted as a law enforcement agency and was assigned law enforcement responsibilities. For example, in 1910 Congress passed the Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes. Responsibility for the enforcement of the law was given to the Bureau of Investigation. Other statutes followed, prohibiting the transportation of stolen goods, vehicles, and obscene materials (Murray 1955).

In 1916, with 300 agents, and in the face of war in Europe, the Bureau was given power to conduct counterintelligence and antiradical investigations. In 1919, the country experienced a series of bombings with targets ranging from police departments to banks (and the residence of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer). These actions were believed to be the responsibility of communists and others who were “un-American.” The bombings and their aftermath became known as the Red Scare. In response to the bombings, Attorney General Palmer established the General Intelligence Division (GID) within the Justice Department to increase significantly the ability to store information on radicals and those suspected of being sympathetic to radicals. John Edgar Hoover was named the head of GID. In 1920, using information from the GID, Attorney General Palmer authorized a series of raids (to be known as the Palmer raids) in cities across the country that resulted in thousands of arrests of people believed to be un-American or communists. The problem was that most of the people arrested were not radicals at all. The courts ordered many of those arrested to be released (Murray 1955).

Private Detectives

In the mid-1800s and early 1900s, private detectives also played an important role in criminal investigations. In addition, many corporations (e.g., railroads, iron and coal mines) hired their own police forces for the primary purpose of dealing with their labor strikes (Conti 1977). With regard to private detective agencies, the most prominent was Pinkerton’s agency. Allen Pinkerton was a barrel maker turned Chicago deputy sheriff, turned Chicago detective. In 1850, he quit his job in the Chicago Police Department and established his own private detective agency. At first, most of the work of the agency involved protecting several mid-western railroads and railroad bridges from sabotage of the confederates as well as striking laborers. Pinkerton and his associates’ preferred method of operation was to mingle with known rebels and criminals in taverns, hotels, and brothels to learn of their plans. In 1861, Pinkerton learned of a plan to assassinate the president-elect Lincoln and was able to persuade Lincoln to alter his travel plans to disrupt the plot. Pinkerton was also hired to spy on the confederacy, to collect information on their strengths and weaknesses, and to apprehend enemy spies. Also at this time, the Justice Department, having no investigators of its own, used agents from the Pinkerton agency. Pinkerton had investigative and operational advantages over governmental agents; in particular, the agency operated without concern for cumbersome political jurisdictional lines. This capability made Pinkerton ideal for pursuing mobile criminal such as train robbers.

Pinkerton also had a well-developed system of internal communication, record keeping, and files on criminals. Police departments often relied on this information to learn what criminals were working in their area. By the turn of the century, the agency had a system in place to share information with the investigative services of foreign nations: Pinkerton operated on a global scale (Conti 1977).

The Reform Era

With the problems of the political era policing system well noted, there were efforts made to reform the police, namely, to get the police out from the control of politicians. To do so required a new way of thinking about policing. This effort took the form of police professionalism. Forward-thinking police leaders such as O.W. Wilson and August Vollmer advocated a new philosophy and system of policing. This new way of thinking about policing was in direct reaction to the ugly politics of before. According to Kelling and Moore (1988), the system of policing from the early 1900s to the 1960s was known as the reform era.

The reform era was all about police professionalism and anti-politics. The police presented themselves as experts who had the specialized knowledge and capabilities to control crime. It was argued that if the police were able to distance themselves from citizens and politicians (i.e., professional autonomy), they would be the most efficient and effective. Crime control and criminal apprehension were viewed as the primary functions of the police. The new technology of the time contributed to and supported the ideals of the new way of thinking about policing. Specifically, the police patrol car allowed the police to increase their mobility and to respond quickly to crime scenes, random motorized patrol was viewed as a means of deterring criminals, and the patrol car provided separation between police officers and citizens. The two-way radio allowed police supervisors to be in constant communication with, and to have supervision, over beat officers. The two-way radio also allowed patrol officers to be directed to places where they were needed. The telephone turned police departments into 24 hour-a-day agencies that were just a phone call away. With the telephone, citizens could easily summon the police when needed.

During the reform era, detectives became an important tool in police departments’ efforts to enhance their professionalism and to deal with crime. Detectives were the ultimate professionals. They were well paid and highly trained. The media at the time portrayed detectives as efficient and effective crime solvers. Similar to the police style in general, detectives often went about their work in a professional, aloof manner. Dragnet, a popular television show during the 1960s, captured this style well. The show was about two Los Angeles Police Department detectives and the investigations they conducted. They cut through the emotion of their work and became famous for their line, “Just the facts ma’am.”

As a continuing attempt to provide organizational control over officers and detectives, detective work became much more removed from interactions with criminals. With scientific advances, more emphasis was placed on getting information from science (and from victims and witnesses) as opposed to from criminals. The rise of science was led in large part by the FBI. Through the 1920s and 1930s, several initiatives were embarked on by the Bureau, each of which helped solidify its reputation as the top law enforcement agency in the country. First, the Bureau took the lead in the development of fingerprints as a method of criminal identification. In 1924, the Bureau began a campaign to collect fingerprints from every American. Representatives of the Bureau even went door-to-door in an effort to collect prints (FBI 1990). Fingerprints were recognized to have numerous advantages over the earlier identification (e.g., photography, Berrillonage). It was understood that fingerprints did not change and could not be changed, from birth to death. In addition, fingerprints were unique. Furthermore, there was a uniform method of collection and classification, and this methodology was relatively simple. Fingerprint printing and storage systems were relatively inexpensive. Finally, fingerprints were useful not only for identification but also for evidence, as they could be left by a suspect at a crime scene. Fingerprints could provide a clue regarding the individual who committed the crime. Photography and Berrillonage provided no such advantages. The major problem with fingerprints as a method of criminal identification was that matching a print of an unknown suspect to a potentially vast number of prints on file was a daunting and unproductive task. It was not until the development of Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS) in the 1980s that this limitation was addressed.

The second initiative of the Bureau was the development of a crime laboratory. In 1932, with a borrowed microscope and a few other pieces of equipment, the Bureau’s laboratory opened. During its first year of operation, the laboratory conducted 963 examinations – nearly all of which involved examinations of handwriting in extortion cases (FBI 1990).

Finally, in 1935 the Bureau began operation of a National Police Academy (to be known later as the FBI National Academy) to train select local police officers in investigative methods. Selection for and graduation from the National Academy was, and continues to be, a prestigious law enforcement accomplishment.

With these initiatives of the FBI, the agency took the lead in reform and crime fighting. It became the role model for other law enforcement agencies. Calvin Coolidge was elected president in 1923 and, in the aftermath of the Palmer raids, one of his first tasks was to reform the Justice Department, the Bureau of Investigation in particular. In 1924, J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the director of the Bureau of Investigation. In 1924 the Bureau had 441 agents. One of Hoover’s first tasks was to upgrade the personnel standards of the FBI agents. Hoover fired about one quarter of all agents and mandated additional training for others. Hiring standards were raised, and training in law or accounting was required. A training school was established for various skills and for learning the procedures of the Bureau. According to Hoover, promotion was to be based on performance, not seniority. Control and standardization were the themes that reflected his management style.

During the late 1920s through the 1930s, numerous high-profile crimes and criminals cook center stage with J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men. In particular, gangsters became larger than life, capturing the imagination of millions of Americans. With the assistance of Hollywood and detective fiction writers, he was able to portray his agents (and himself) at the same mythical levels as gangsters. Gangsters were portrayed as public enemies, the Bureau of Investigation’s G-men were cop-heroes, and J. Edgar Hoover was the top cop.

In 1932, the nation was transfixed over the news of the kidnapping and murder of the infant son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh. Kidnapping laws were passed by Congress, and the Bureau of Investigation was made responsible for this and other high-profile investigations.

World War II brought new challenges. With the rise of totalitarian abroad, a concern with internal enemies developed. By request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, the FBI resumed with increased enthusiasm their information collection activities of domestic communists and radicals. By1939, Hoover had reestablished the GID. The war years provided the FBI with a powerful rationale for monitoring political radicals. In addition, the passage of the Smith Act in 1940 provided a legal basis for FBI domestic security investigations. The Smith Act made it a crime to advocate or conspire to advocate the forceful overthrow of the government. During the early 1940s, the FBI underwent dramatic growth, with the number of agents doubling to nearly 6,000 (FBI 1990).

The 1950s saw a decreasing concern with domestic communism and an increasing concern with organized crime; new laws strengthened the Bureau’s jurisdiction in organized crime cases. Aggressive use of wiretaps continued unabated (FBI 1990).

The Community Problem-Solving Era

The 1960s was a troubling time for many Americans and the police. In the 1960s, America was in the grip of the Vietnam War. There were war protests across the country. It was the time of the civil rights movement and the related demonstrations, marches, and riots. The police became viewed by many as an “occupying army” in the low-income, minority ghettos of urban cities. The police were called “pigs.” In the1960s, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, as was Senator and presidential candidate (and former Attorney General of the United States) Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. American society was in turmoil. Fear of crime was increasing dramatically. Actual crime was also increasing; the crime rate doubled from 1960 to 1970. Helter Skelter and Charles Manson were front-page news. The Beatles sang Revolution. The police were experiencing a crisis, yet they were supposed to have the knowledge and capabilities to control crime successfully. If the situation was not bad enough for the police, the US Supreme Court rendered several landmark decisions (e.g., Mapp v. Ohio, Miranda v. Arizona) that were seen as “handcuffing” the police. In addition, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, several major research studies were conducted to examine the effectiveness of police operations. The Kansas Preventive Patrol Experiment (Kelling et al. 1974) concluded that random motorized patrols did not deter crime. The RAND study on detectives (Greenwoord et al. 1977) concluded that detectives contributed little to solving crimes and that many detectives could be replaced with clerical personnel.

In the face of this multifaceted crisis, the police realized that the old ideas of professionalism no longer worked. The police needed to get closer to the community to enlist their support and assistance in fighting crime. With this new realization came the community problem-solving era of policing (Kelling and Moore 1988), for which community policing is of central importance. A cornerstone of community policing is that police and citizens must be “coproducers” of crime prevention. The reform era emphasized police-citizen separation, the community era emphasized police-citizen cooperation.

Skolnick and Bayley (1988) identified four definitional elements of community policing. First and most important for the investigative function, community policing involves the community in efforts of criminal investigation and crime prevention. Second, community policing consists of a reorientation of patrol activities. It is realized that the patrol car is not the only means by which police services can be delivered. Community policing initiatives allow for the placement of police personnel in mini-stations, provide for home visits, or provide for foot patrols (as well as patrol via bicycle, scooter, horse, roller blades, and so forth). Third, community policing requires increased accountability through citizen input into police practices and policy. Citizen satisfaction is a legitimate goal according to the community policing philosophy. Finally, with community policing, the police understand that different communities have different priorities and problems. Accordingly, community policing requires the decentralization of command and provision of services to individual neighborhoods.

All these features are supposed to result in several desired ends. First, such initiatives are supposed to reduce crime. Because community policing programs allow the police to have more interaction with the public, there are likely to be increased opportunities for the police to receive information that leads to crimes being solved (Skolnick and Bayley 1988). Crime may also be reduced through citizen education and involvement in crime prevention programs. Crime may be reduced by paying attention to the conditions, the disorder, which may lead to an environment in which crime can flourish (Wilson and Kelling 1982). Second, community policing programs are often expected to reduce fear of crime. This goal may also be attained through citizen education and involvement in crime prevention activities, as well as through the increased emphasis placed on reducing signs of disorder. Finally, because community policing programs enable citizens to have input into policing in their neighborhoods and make the police “easily accessible, frequently visible, and caring in their relationships with citizens” (Goldstein 1987, pp. 8–9), community policing programs are often expected to improve citizen attitudes toward the police.

Although the research that has examined the effects of community policing has shown that it often does not work as expected (see Rosenbaum 1994), the means and ends of community policing, in principle, seem to be quite congruent with the task of criminal investigation. The basic task of the police in a criminal investigation is to collect information that will lead to the identification, apprehension, and conviction of the subject who perpetuated the criminal act. Much of the research on the investigative function highlights the role of the public as suppliers of information to the police (Greenwood et al. 1977). Simply stated, the police are dependent on the public, and community policing makes this dependence explicit.

Strategies that provide an opportunity for community residents to share information with the police in solving crimes are particularly relevant in the era of community policing. For example, tip lines are quite common in criminal investigations today. The Crime Solvers, Crime Stoppers, and WeTip programs are supported by many communities across the country. In addition, police departments frequently establish designated tip lines for major investigations.

Along the same line, school liaison officers are located in a setting where they are available not only to assist students with questions or problems that they may have but also to obtain information about crimes from them. Similarly, police involvement with community watch groups provides a public service and also, arguably, makes it easier for residents to contact and provide information to the police that may assist in investigations. These strategies make police dependence on the public explicit and are congruent with the ideals of community policing.

Along with an explicit dependence on community residents for information, other developments in criminal investigation have occurred during the community problem-solving era of policing. Chief among these is DNA analysis as a method of identification. DNA analysis represents an extraordinary advance in science and in identification methods as applied to criminal investigations. The science of DNA, along with the introduction of computer technology to store, record, and match DNA prints across individuals, has the potential to revolutionize criminal investigative methods. In addition, other technology in the form of computer networks and databanks are also changing criminal investigations in dramatic ways. COMSTAT, an operational approach to policing which is based on “gathering accurate and timely intelligence, designing effective strategies and tactics, the rapid deployment of personnel and resources, and relentless follow‐up and assessment” (Dabney 2010, p. 34), also has the potential to dramatically affect how criminal investigations are managed and performed. In addition, empirical research continues to be conducted on the criminal investigation process, the contribution of detectives in solving crimes, and the impact of forensic evidence on crime solving (e.g., Eck 1983; Brandl and Frank 1994; Baskin and Sommers 2010).

As before, the FBI is often considered at the forefront of technological changes in the criminal investigation process. Today, the FBI crime laboratory is the most scientifically advanced and well-funded in the world, although it has been subject to criticism for its “sloppy” work in several cases (Kelly and Wearne 1998). The FBI also operates the NCIC – a computerized network and storage system of crime information. The FBI continues to operate the National Academy and it provides many other types of operational assistance to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies (see FBI 1999), including psychological profiling.

During the course of history, police institutions and organizations have responded to a variety of external forces that have caused changes in their structure and function. From these changes emerged the criminal investigation function and investigative methods. Most people would argue that much progress has been made in criminal investigations. Ultimately, that is for the future to decide.


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