5 myths about patrol officers and detectives

The role of a patrol officer is crucial to a successful criminal investigation


As a detective and former patrol officer, I have a tremendous respect for the men and women of our profession who work patrol. I can attribute a great deal of my success as a detective to the thorough and detailed preliminary investigations conducted by the patrol officers I’ve worked with. This cooperative effort between patrol officers and detectives is essential to clearing cases and successful prosecutions. Not all patrol officers and detectives share this “cooperative” approach. Unfortunately, in some agencies, relationships between patrol officers and detectives are strained due to simple misunderstandings about the roles that each play during the course of an investigation. Some believe, for example, that the role of a patrol officer is only to respond to a crime scene and secure it until the detective(s) arrive and upon their arrival, “hand off” the investigation. The problem with this philosophy is that the patrol officer is then “hands off” rather than “hands on” during the remaining course of an investigation.

It is worth noting the benefits of a cooperative effort between patrol officers and detectives. By working side by side, to the extent that the demands of patrol allow, during a criminal investigation allows detectives to educate patrol officers about the criminal investigative process. Similarly, patrol officers can educate detectives through their familiarity of their assigned beat or post, their sources of information, the members of their community, and the offenders that operate there.

This philosophy of “pairing and sharing” creates an atmosphere for learning. Patrol officers gain the “big picture” outlook while working with a detective on a criminal investigation. They expand their knowledge base, have an opportunity to network with other detectives and learn of or acquire investigative resources that may assist them in their patrol function.

We should also consider the fact that in most cases, patrol officers are our future detectives. The skills patrol officers learn while working with a detective will help them to hit the ground running once they are promoted to the status of investigator.

In an effort to dispel some of the misunderstandings between detectives and patrol officers, here are five myths relevant to the work that both perform. By clearing up these myths, I hope to foster the understanding that a partnership, absent ego or animosity and based upon mutual respect and interdependence should exist between detectives and patrol officers to efficiently and effectively solve and prosecute criminal cases.

Myth #1: For Patrol Officers, a Preliminary Investigation Consists Only of Securing the Scene and Taking Information for a Report
There’s more to preliminary investigations and taking information for a report and guarding the scene. The entirety of the criminal investigation is built on the process begun by the first responding patrol officers. No investigator can do in a follow-up what patrol officers can accomplish in the initial period of investigation.

The actions of the first responding officers are critical to a successful case outcome. Taking appropriate actions based upon their initial analysis of the crime scene is something detectives rarely have an opportunity to do. Patrol officers’ first-responder status is a big benefit — anything pertinent that can be gathered in those initial stages of a crime is very beneficial to the follow-up investigation. Quick and appropriate notifications are also a valued responsibility of patrol officers at a crime scene. The sooner the appropriate investigator arrives the greater the chance of successful case resolution.

Myth #2: Patrol Officers Receive Adequate Training on Investigative Matters
A 2003 Department of Justice survey of national police policies and practices regarding the criminal investigative process indicated police officers received an average of 41 hours of training pertaining to the criminal investigative process — most of which was incorporated in basic academy training. These results were based on responses from 464 different police agencies. Agencies were required to offer their police officers a range from zero to 540 hours of instructional training. Ten police agencies reported having zero required hours of training pertaining to the criminal investigative process. The agencies responding to the survey indicated topics of instruction included crime scene procedure, evidence gathering, interview and interrogation, report writing and court testimony.

While academy training is beneficial most patrol officers learn best in the field, as there is no substitute for practical hands-on experience. This too is why partnering patrol officers and detectives is important. If a patrol officer could be partnered with a detective during the course of an investigation or even a portion of the investigation the detective could share with the patrol officer investigative steps necessary to successfully clear the case. This “pairing and sharing” process would benefit the patrol officers by improving their investigative strategies and skills and would benefit the detectives by having well-trained first responders who instinctively know the most beneficial steps to take in a preliminary investigation.

Myth #3: Patrol Officers Do Not Carry Out a Wide Range of Investigative Tasks
The role of a patrol officer is crucial to a successful criminal investigation and cannot be over emphasized. Skilled officers perform a variety of duties upon arriving at a crime scene, which sets the course for the follow-up investigation. The patrol officer’s analysis and observations as they approach a crime scene are highly valued by the detectives and the proper documentation of those observations may become indispensable during court proceedings. The patrol officer may encounter the suspect still at the crime scene and affect the arrest. The subsequent search of the suspect and any spontaneous utterances made by the suspect are also very valuable in court.

The crime scene itself is similar to a leaking sieve. Victims or witnesses may be fleeing the scene and evidence could be corrupted, contaminated or removed. The actions of the initial patrol officer determines whether the leaks in the “vessel” containing critical case information are plugged or if it runs dry — leaving detectives with little or nothing to work with.

Patrol officers may also be asked to respond back to a crime scene after it is been processed and released. There have been several times when additional evidence is discovered or new information comes to light and the patrol officer is either the one making the discovery or tasked with that follow-up.

Detectives are not typically the first responder to a call for service or a crime scene. The responsibilities of the first responding patrol officer vary depending upon the type of crime and the nature of the crime scene. Suffice to say that the more a patrol officer can do during the preliminary stages of an investigation, the greater the chances of a successful case outcome.

Myth #4: The Responsibility of the Patrol Officer Ends When the Detective(s) Arrive
It should be obvious by now that detectives depend heavily upon the actions of patrol. Too many officers share the thinking that they can “hand-off” the investigation once the detective(s) arrive. Most detectives prefer, throughout the course of their investigation, that patrol officers maintain a sense of “ownership” of their case. There are many instances in the latter stages of an investigation where patrol officers can remain engaged and contribute toward case resolution. Detectives may need to rely upon patrol officers to locate critical witnesses, respond back to a crime scene, speak to informants or other members of the community, assist in the execution of search warrants, gather additional evidence, locate vehicles or explore geographic areas unfamiliar to the detectives.

Another critical area where patrol officers and detectives often rely upon one another is court. The patrol officer is often one of the first people called to testify at trial. Maintaining contact with the detective throughout the investigative process of a case familiarizes the patrol officer with the investigative steps taken to identify the suspect and gather the appropriate evidence so that the patrol officer can testify confidently and comfortably when questioned.

Myth #5: An Investigation Can’t Start Until a Crime Occurs
The intuitive patrol officer is intimately familiar with the post or jurisdiction in which he or she works. Knowing the points of egress and escape, establishing contacts within the community, being familiar with “hotspots” and the identity and descriptors of any offenders residing in their patrol area all serve to make the patrol officer a font of information before a crime ever occurs and dramatically increase case solvability when it does. These factors not only garner a patrol officer the respect of the detectives and fosters the atmosphere of cooperation, it may also grant a patrol officer, who aspires to become a detective, a recommendation the next time a job opening presents itself in investigations.

A successful prosecution is the hallmark of a good investigation. Good investigations occur when patrol officers and detectives work cooperatively from beginning to end, each playing a key role in the investigative process. A better understanding of how the work of patrol officers and detectives pairs to build a case and dispelling the myths that blur the roles that each performs during an investigation helps to realign their common purpose — skilled patrol officers, quality investigations and successful prosecutions.

About the author

Detective Morris Greenberg serves as a proud member of the Baltimore County Police in Baltimore, Maryland. Most of his career has been spent conducting criminal investigation in specialized units including Robbery, Violent Crimes and Homicide. He has also served on the department’s Hostage Negotiation Team. Detective Greenberg possesses a Master’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins University, Division of Public Safety Leadership and teaches within the Criminal Justice Programs at two local colleges.

Contact Moe Greenberg.

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