Excerpt: American Detective

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The following is an excerpt from American Detective: Behind the Scenes of Famous Criminal Investigations by Thomas A. Reppetto (June 2018). 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, detectives are the key element in American policing. Undoubtedly, this statement will be disputed by many police administrators and researchers. In recent years it has become almost an article of faith that the patrol force is far more important than detectives. Those who argue otherwise are often dismissed as “buffs” who have seen too many movies and TV shows. Having spent a lifetime in and around police work, I hardly think that title would apply to me. Within police administrative circles detective bureaus are often thought to be vastly overrated and grossly overstaffed, but, because the public is fascinated by the latest front-page murder or million-dollar robbery, they are difficult to rein in.

Patrick V. Murphy, a career New York cop who from 1963 to 1973 headed the police departments of Syracuse, New York; Washington DC; Detroit; and New York City had especially hard words for detectives in his native city. He wrote, “The ambitious ones might be barhopping with reporters, politicians, or judges; shakedown artists, barhopping too, might be ‘shopping’; the lazier ones could be glued to a stool ostensibly picking up ‘information.’” Of course, Murphy himself never worked as a detective. Instead he spent most of his early career as an instructor in the police academy. The petty chiseling he accused detectives of was not confined to any police unit. It was known in every bureau.

The highly regarded management consulting group known as the Rand Corporation made more fundamental criticisms in less vitriolic terms: “The single most important determinant of whether or not a case will be solved is the information the victim supplies to the immediately responding patrol officers. If the information that uniquely identifies the perpetrator is not presented at the time the crime is reported, the perpetrator by and large will not be subsequently identified…The method by which police and investigators are organized (team policing, specialist versus generalist, uniform patrolman–investigators) cannot be related to variations in crime, arrests and clearance rates.” The study led some administrators to argue that half the detective force in any police department could be dispensed with.

The Rand notion that only information from victims or witnesses would lead to an arrest ignored the vast amount of other information detectives received from informers and the general knowledge they acquired from their work. Just because no one witnesses a particular burglary, it does not mean that it cannot be solved. Burglary detectives can sometimes tell from the tool marks on the door what gang pulled the job. Or they can canvas their many informers. They can then start asking questions around the milieu of burglars. They might even be able to set up a trap for the gang that pulled the job. The same is true in other crimes. The murder of union leader Jimmy Hoffa has never been solved officially, but a number of people deemed responsible for it have been punished by being sent to prison on other charges.

On its face, the Rand assertion about detective organization is unsupportable. The way in which an army, business corporation, or government agency is organized is fundamental to its success or failure. After World War I, leaders of the victorious French Army assumed that in any future conflict, defense would prove the key to victory. So they sheltered their troops behind the Maginot Line. In contrast, the Germans envisioned a war of movement and developed mobile forces to carry it out. In 1940 France actually had more and better tanks than the Germans but it used them to support the infantry rather than as a massed attack force. If France had organized a mobile tank army, as a certain Col. Charles de Gaulle had urged in a prewar book, the Allies would have won the war in 1940. Most murderers, rapists, professional robbers, and burglars are captured by detective follow-up investigations. Police investigators also apprehend less visible criminals such as con artists and members of drug rings. The detective bureau, usually composing around 10–12 percent of a police department, is the only major unit devoted solely to fighting serious crime. The history of detective work of the present type is not a long one. The London Metropolitan Police, created in 1829, replaced a force of part-time night watchmen hired by the various parishes (local neighborhoods) of the city with a full-time uniformed force. American cities, beginning with New York in 1845, followed suit. Until the late nineteenth century detectives in London or New York were a small adjunct to the main force. Then, in 1878, the London Metropolitan Police created a criminal investigation division (known popularly as Scotland Yard), and two years later Insp. Thomas Byrnes of the New York City Police Department established the modern American detective bureau.

Even before the emergence of powerful police detective bureaus, private detectives, like the Pinkerton Agency, operated nationwide and even internationally. Occasionally a city or state or the national government would hire the Pinkertons. The agency’s symbol, an open eye with the slogan “we never sleep,” became well known and gave rise to the term private eye.

The twentieth century saw the rise in importance of American detectives. From the beginning of the century until as late as the 1970s, detective bureaus dominated many American police departments, particularly major ones like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. The era was the golden age of detectives and every ambitious cop tried to secure an investigative assignment. In some cities a detective post became more desirable than the job of sergeant or lieutenant in the patrol force.

Despite the public’s fascination with detectives, most people do not understand how they operate. Contrary to the impression furnished by TV, Hollywood, or mystery novels, the basis of detective work has not been the intuitive powers of individual investigators. Successful police detectives are individuals who are able to master the systems and methods of criminal investigation utilized by their departments: cultivation of informers, canvassing for witnesses, interrogating suspects, and keeping an eye on known criminals.

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