Criminal Investigation: Its History and Its Importance to Law Enforcement

Today’s criminal investigators are the product of the rich history of policing in America. Basic police practices and procedures are rooted in the past. However, criminal investigation in America could trace its roots back in England. Detection activities were evident in England as early as 1534. Between the 16th century and the early part of the 19th century, detection was the province of citizens and criminals who acted as informers, thief-takers, and constables. The government encouraged both citizens and criminals to provide information about illegal activity.

Citizens were either given money or freed from performing obligatory public services. Criminals were provided money, impunity from prosecution, or, in some cases, a pardon (Klockars 1985, p. 64-91). Not until the 1850s, however, was the system of privately sponsored night watchmen replaced in most cities by a regular police force organized, authorized, and subsidized by local governments (Peak, 2006). When the Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1929, the English experience with criminal investigation had been essentially negative.

The problems associated with corruption, secrecy, deceit, and entrapment plus the class-based social and political conflict of the period resulted in the creation of a visible, preventive police (Smith 1985, p. 61-62). The leaders of the new police, Robert Peel, Charles Rowan, and Richard Mayne acted with caution in their approach to detection. While they were primarily concerned about public acceptance, there was also some question as to how effective the new police would be in apprehending the more skilled criminals (Jones, 1982).

Although a small detective unit was not established until 1842, the London police could not ignore the need for detection activity prior to that time. Plainclothes officers were used to catch pickpockets and to attend union and political meetings. When the detective unit was established, it was justified on the basis of the need to respond to murder, a heinous crime that the police could investigate with the assurance of public support. This established the precedent of the detective as a police officer who responded primarily to the more serious and complicated crimes (Klockars 1985, p. 64-91).

More than any other single person, Robert Peel deserves credit as the “father” of modern policing. A member of England’s elite social and political class, he fought for over 30 years to improve the basic structure of law enforcement in the country. By the early nineteenth century the old system of law enforcement in England began to collapse. London had grown into a large industrial city, with problems of poverty, disorder, ethnic conflict, and crime. The 1780 Gordon riots, a clash between Irish immigrants and English citizens, triggered a 50-year debate over the need for better public safety.

The new police reflected his vision of an efficient, proactive police force. Officers soon became known as “Bobbies” in honor of Sir Robert Peel (Critchley, 1972). However, many of the early American police departments were little more than expanded versions of the old watch system. The Boston police department had only nine officers in 1838. The first American police officers did not wear uniforms, but were identified only by a distinctive hat and badge. They also did not carry firearms. Weapons did not become standard police equipment until the late nineteenth century, in response to rising levels of crime and violence.

Americans borrowed most of the London model of modern policing: the mission of crime prevention, the strategy of visible patrol over fixed beats, and the quasi-military organizational structure. The structure of political control of the police, however, was very different. The United States was a far more democratic country than Britain. American voters—only white males with property until the latter part of the nineteenth century—exercised direct control over all government agencies. London residents, by contrast, had no direct control over their police.

As a result, American police departments were immediately immersed in local politics, a situation that led to many serious problems. The commissioners of the London police, freed from political influence, were able to maintain high personnel standards (Miller, 1977). In the United States, however, politics influenced every aspect of American policing in the nineteenth century. Inefficiency, corruption, and lack of professionalism were the chief results (Walker, 1977). It was not until the 20th century did the American policing underwent a dramatic change.

There were two principal forces for change: an organized movement for police professionalism and the introduction of modern communications technology. With modern technology, criminal investigation became more scientific and more accurate. If Robert Peel was the father of the modern police, August Vollmer was the father of American police professionalism. Vollmer served as chief of police in Berkeley, California, from 1905 to 1932 and, more than any other person, defined an agenda of police reform that continues to influence policing even today.

He is most famous for advocating higher education for police officers. He hired college graduates in Berkeley and organized the first college-level police science courses at the University of California in 1916. In that respect, he is also the father of modern criminal justice education. Vollmer also served as a consultant to many local police departments and national commissions. In 1923 he took a year’s leave from Berkeley to serve as chief of the Los Angeles police department. When the year was up, he returned home very pessimistic about the chances of reforming the corrupt and inefficient LAPD.

Vollmer also wrote the 1931 Wickersham Commission Report on Police, which summarized the reform agenda of modern management for police departments and higher recruitment standards for officers. He trained a number of students who went on to become reform police chiefs in California and other states (Carte and Carte, 1975). Together with the advent of professionalization of the police, the Bureau of Investigation was established in 1908 by executive order of President Theodore Roosevelt. Its name was changed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935.

Until then, the federal government had no full-time criminal investigation agency. Private detective agencies were sometimes used under contract on an as-needed basis. The new Bureau of Investigation was immediately involved in scandal. Some agents were caught opening the mail of one senator who had opposed creation of the agency. In 1919 and 1920, the bureau conducted a massive roundup of suspected radicals, accompanied by gross violations of due process. More scandals followed in the 1920s (Gentry, 1991). The most important new figure in American law enforcement in the 1930s was the director of the Bureau of Investigation, J.

Edgar Hoover. He was appointed director of the bureau in 1924 after a series of scandals. Capitalizing on public fears about a national crime wave in the 1930s, he increased the size and scope of the bureau’s activities. In 1930 he won control of the new Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) system. In 1934 a set of new federal laws gave the FBI increased jurisdiction, including authority to arrest criminals who crossed state lines in order to avoid prosecution. The following year the FBI opened its National Police Academy, which trained bureau agents and, by invitation, some local police officers (Gentry, 1991).

Hoover was a master at public relations, skillfully manipulating the media to project an image of the FBI agent as the paragon of professionalism: dedicated, honest, trained, and relentlessly efficient (Powers, 1983). Some of Hoover’s reputation was deserved. FBI agents were far better educated and trained than local police officers. But there was an ugly underside to Hoover’s long career (1924–1972) as leader of the bureau. He exaggerated the FBI’s role in several famous cases—such as that of Pretty Boy Floyd—and manipulated crime data to create an exaggerated impression of the bureau’s effectiveness.

He concentrated on smalltime bank robbers, while ignoring organized crime, white-collar crime, and violations of federal civil rights laws. Even worse, Hoover systematically violated the constitutional rights of citizens, spying on political groups and compiling secret files on elected officials. His misuse of power did not become known until after his death in 1972 (Theoharis and Cox, 1989). Hoover’s leadership of the FBI had a significant impact on local police. His emphasis on education and training established a model for personnel standards.

The introduction of the UCR, the development of the Ten Most Wanted list, and the creation of the FBI crime lab all served to emphasize crime fighting at the expense of other aspects of policing. Beginning in the mid-1960s, an explosion of research on the police occurred. Much of this research was funded by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) (1968–1976), and later the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). In 1970, the Ford Foundation established the Police Foundation with a grant of $30 million.

The foundation sponsored some of the most important police research, including the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment. Later, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a professional association of big-city police managers, emerged as the leader of innovation in policing. The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment was one of the most important pieces of police research ever conducted (1972–1973). The experiment tested the effect of different levels of patrol and found that increased patrol did not reduce crime and had no significant effect on public awareness about police presence.

At the same time, reduced patrol did not lead to an increase in crime or in public fear of crime. Challenging the basic assumptions about the effect of patrol on crime, the experiment had a profound effect on thinking about the police (Greenwood, 1975) Research also questioned the value of rapid police response. Faster response time did not lead to more arrests. Few calls involved crimes in progress, and most crime victims did not call the police immediately. The Rand Corporation study of criminal investigation, meanwhile, shattered traditional myths about the detective.

Follow-up investigations are very unproductive, most crimes are solved through information obtained by the first officer on the scene, and most detective work is boring, routine paperwork (Greenwood, 1975). In 1971, Germany provided a turning point in the history of criminal investigation. The Bundeskriminalamt, the federal investigative office, was remodelled to become a central agency to guide, control and co-ordinate the work of the various state investigative offices, the Landerkriminalamter.

It had quickly emerged that an effective counter-terrorist campaign cannot be run without a centralised intelligence-gathering and evaluation network. To many people the build-up of any such computer network will be on a confrontation course with the restraints and safeguards embodied in the constitution of any democratic society. Despite this, there has been a tendency to neglect conventional detective work in favour of the highly technicalized systems such as databases and computer terminals (Thackrah, 2004). At present, modern technology had revolutionized criminal investigation.

With the laboratory setting forensic science managers and organizations, these enabled investigators to scientifically approach a crime scene. These tools have long been recognized that an essential part of the quality equation is to have a quality system, which meets accreditation standards. Many countries have their own accreditation agency and the United States based American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors-Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD-LAB) has accredited laboratories in a number of countries and has recently included crime scene investigation within their accreditation programme.

(Robertson, 2004, p. 399). In the future, crimes will be easier to solve and the criminals will be accurately be detected with the advance of criminal investigation as an important arm of the police and law enforcement agencies. References Carte, G. E. and Carte, E. H. (1975). Police Reform in the United States: The Era of August Vollmer, Berkeley: University of California Press. Critchley, T. A. (1972). A History of Police in England and Wales, 2nd ed. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith. Gentry, C. (1991). J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets, New York: W. W. Norton. Greenwood, P.

(1975). The Criminal Investigation Process, Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 1975. Jones, D. (1982). Crime, Protest, Community and Police in Nineteenth Century Britain, London: Routledge and Keegan Paul. Klockars, C. (1985). The Idea of Police, Beverley Hills: Sage. Miller, W. R. (1977). Cops and Bobbies: Police Authority in New York and London, 1830–1870, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Peak, K. J. (2006). Policing America, 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, N. J. : PrenticeHall. Powers, R. G. (1983). G-Men: Hoover’s FBI in American Popular Culture, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Robertson, J. (2004). Crime Scene Investigation: Key Issues for the Future. In The Practice of Crime Scene Investigation (pp. 399-406). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. Smith, P. (1985). Policing Victorian London, Westport, CN: Greenwood Press. Thackrah, J. R. (2004). Dictionary of Terrorism. New York: Routledge. Theoharis, A. G. and Cox, J. S. (1988). The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition, Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Walker, S. (1977). A Critical History of Police Reform, Lexington: Lexington Books.