Uniformed patrol forms the backbone and primary job of virtually every law enforcement agency in this country. However, this month Law Officer focuses on investigations, and I challenge you to consider looking at every one of those patrol officers as functioning investigators. Officers who think and function like good investigators greatly improve their overall effectiveness.
When I was a sergeant, I had a tour in investigations that lasted almost five years. Shortly after arriving, I talked to an investigator scheduled to rotate back to patrol. (My agency rotates virtually all assignments, and detective, while a special assignment, is not a promotion or permanent position.) We needed to replace the detective, and I asked how long he thought we should have the new person work with him to learn the ropes. The investigator thought for a minute and said matter-of-factly, “About two hours.” When I balked, he said he was serious.
He explained that an investigator really just does what good patrol cops would do if they had more time to work the call. He said the only reason he needed two hours was to explain the paper flow. This conversation happened more than 15 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It influenced a lot of my efforts since, which include expanding the role and responsibility of officers to work cases to conclusion whenever possible.
At this point, I know there are probably a few thousand of you out there saying, “They won’t let me,” or “That’s not my job,” or “We don’t have time,” or “Patrol will screw it up.” I know staffing is always a challenge, and most patrol cops are not trained investigators. I also know urgent calls demand an urgent response, and patrol has to handle them. But uniformed cops can conduct follow-up, move a case along or bring it to closure. The more quickly officers obtain information and examine leads, the greater their chance to clear a case. Empowering and expecting officers to take a closer look when they’re involved in the initial response just makes good sense. This is especially true because most departments often incorporate layers of process that mean a detective may not see a patrol-generated case for several days, if at all. Cases are often screened out and closed because they don’t have substantive leads likely to result in an arrest, or the level of crime doesn’t warrant investigative follow-up even though there may be good suspect information.
A vital key to effective investigation is a thought process that evaluates actions as if every case is destined to go to trial. Officers should operate in terms of gathering “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” instead of just “probable cause to arrest.” They’re much more likely to do this if they handle more of the case.
At this point, I’ve probably got quite a few of you thinking I must live on an island and have no idea what’s really happening in your department. I’m sure many feel there’s just no way patrol officers could actually work through a call to conclusion, let alone present it to a district attorney for filing. Well, they can and do.
Consider the Redmond (Wash.) Police Department, which I recently visited. The department expects patrol officers to work cases through and, if possible, present them to a prosecutor. An investigations section handles complex cases and those that extend beyond the ability of patrol, but patrol officers are expected to handle a case from beginning to end whenever possible, even if it means taking ownership of a case beyond the end of watch. Gone are the days of the quick report (or kiss off) followed by the uncertain assurance, “Detectives will probably contact you.”
I really like this approach, and, before you dismiss it as impractical or impossible, consider these benefits:
1. Patrol officers’ effectiveness and expertise increase significantly. They learn how to interview, gather evidence and even write a search warrant. (Bet that raised some eyebrows.)
2. Initial effort increases because officers know who’s working on the follow-up of their initial report: They are.
3. Follow-up is timelier, resulting in more reliable witness interviews and decreasing the disappearance or deterioration of evidence.
4. Job satisfaction increases. After all, everyone likes to see the outcome of their efforts.
5. Traditional approaches usually schedule detectives in a Monday–Friday daytime routine, with one detective working call-out. When patrol officers know how to conduct an investigation, though, you effectively have investigators working around the clock.
6. For major crimes that require full-time and specially trained investigators, patrol officers are more likely to know how to assist.
Before you play the limited-staffing card, remember this approach permits a redistribution of staffing. I’m not suggesting you reassign all detectives to patrol, but you can rebalance. And remember, when you need new positions, politicians are usually more willing to vote for more uniformed crime fighters than non-uniformed positions. You may find increasing patrol responsibility permits an increase in patrol staffing. Just the facts.