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Criminal Investigation: The Lost Art - Page 1 of 3

By Jim Fisher

Successful investigators are intelligent, analytical people who like to solve problems and figure things out. They are also curious, competitive and well-organized in their work habits. They are unafraid of complexity, pay great attention to detail, are articulate, and can express themselves well on paper. Dedicated investigators are life-long students, people who embrace new challenges and tough assignments. They are not only intelligent, they have trained themselves to think clearly, draw relevant conclusions and keep bias out of their calculations. They are not afraid of difficult, emotionally draining work. Result oriented, they are not killing time until they are old enough to retire.

People who make first-class detectives are often not suited for general police work, and a good cop will not necessarily turn into a competent investigator. The fields of law enforcement (as peace keeping or order maintenance) and criminal investigation are vastly different functions that appeal to different kinds of people. The uniformed officer, often having to act quickly and decisively, instead of thoughtful discretion, is more likely to act pursuant to a detailed code of rules and regulations which have been committed to memory. Training a police officer is therefore nothing like preparing someone for criminal investigation. For that reason, criminal investigators should be recruited from an entirely different pool of candidates. For example, there is no reason to require trainee investigators to be as physically fit as uniformed officers, or to learn how to deal with drunks and domestic disturbances.

The gap between policing and criminal investigation has widened as law enforcement agencies, focused on drug enforcement and concerns with terrorism, have become more paramilitary in nature. Even small police departments field SWAT teams that are often used to arrest deadbeat dads and shoplifting fugitives to keep in practice. As the police become less interested in criminal investigation, the public, having been educated by the O.J. Simpson case and hooked on television shows like “CSI,” “Forensic Files,” and “The New Detectives,” has become increasingly interested in and knowledgeable about the art and science of criminal investigation. This has widened another gap, one between public expectation and police performance.

Until general policing and criminal investigation are recognized and treated as separate vocations, criminal investigations of major, difficult crimes will continue to be regularly bungled. It is becoming increasingly difficult to think of a celebrated case that hasn’t suffered from what could be at best termed mediocre detective work. In America, people who commit criminal homicide, not a particularly clever group of criminals, have a one-third chance of getting away with it. One in a hundred arsonists end up in prison, and child molesters are having a field day. For the law breaker, America is the land of opportunity. And it is not because the U.S. Supreme Court has handcuffed police detectives. Blaming democracy for their failures has become second nature to investigators unwilling to face up to their inadequacies.

Crime solutions rates reveal just how bad our investigators are doing. Only twenty percent of all criminal investigations lead to an arrest. The crime solution rate hasn’t changed since the FBI started keeping crime records back in l933. The reason for this has to do with the fact that criminal investigation, as a function of the American criminal justice system, has never been a priority. (In its top ten mission priorities of 2003, the FBI lists white collar crime investigation seventh, and violent crime investigation eighth.) This reality has created decades of public frustration and disillusionment. Instead of fixing the problem, the law enforcement community has tried to indoctrinate the public into believing that solving one out of five crimes is the best that can be expected. It’s the old war-is-hell excuse. In baseball, batting 200 is mediocre. That average, for law enforcement, is so poor it’s embarrassing.

Investigative trainees are not only drawn from the wrong well, they are improperly trained by instructors who emphasize methods and techniques designed to resolve cases quickly rather than correctly. The emphasis is on the acquisition of direct evidence in the form of eyewitness identification and the confession rather than the more time consuming and complex gathering and interpretation of physical evidence, an endeavor that requires special training and more complicated thinking. Perhaps this is why so many crime scenes are either ignored or improperly processed. This also explains why there are so many false confessions and people sent to prison on the strength of questionable line-up and mug shot identifications. Another method of quickly getting a case off the books involves the use of unreliable jailhouse informants who testify against defendants in return for police or judicial favors.

Because most detectives are not accustomed to digging deeply into a case, that is peeling away layers and layers of leads, they are often stumped when merely scratching the surface of a case fails to reveal the perpetrator. There is also the problem of the so-called veteran rookie, the uniformed cop who after fifteen years on patrol finally makes the detective squad. The officer is not only an investigative rookie, he’s quite often a burned-out bureaucrat with his eye toward retirement.

The increasingly popular use of task forces and team investigations has attenuated investigative responsibility and produces poor results. A single, competent investigator will produce better results than a team of fifty amateurs spinning their wheels around a case without direction or vision.

Only a handful of college level criminal justice programs include courses on criminal investigation. Most criminal justice courses are in the areas of policing, corrections, and the sociology of crime. The criminal investigation courses that are offered are often taught by academics teaching out of textbooks, or worse, by retired local cops earning a little part time money by regaling students with their war stories. This begs the question: can a qualified practitioner/lecturer teach college students how to be competent, well-rounded investigators? Assuming that the class is filled with serious students who want to become investigators, the answer is no. The most a professor can do is to educate students about the art and science of criminal investigation. While this will not turn criminal justice majors into investigators, it might enhance a student’s police training and the all-important apprenticeship that should follow the police academy.

At the very least, besides the basic crime solving techniques—crime scene work, interviewing, interrogation and the like—students should be exposed to a philosophy or theory of crime solution that includes the proper attitude, mind set, and core investigative values that good detectives possess. They can be taught how to recognize the elements of a solid investigation and identify cases that are incomplete or flawed. If nothing else, students should come away from the course knowing the basic dos and don’ts of criminal investigation, a skeleton that can be fattened up with good training, an internship, on-the-job mentoring, and relevant experience.

What follows are some of the dos and don’ts of criminal investigation I have been teaching criminal justice students for thirty years:

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This page was last updated on: Monday, January 7, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com